Managerialism debated as Chinese scholars protest over tiny bonuses

Academics at Southwest Minzu University complained of bonuses as small as 91p – or even negative awards

January 19, 2021
 "Lung Moon Restautant" showcased at "Micro-Setup, Macro-Party" Miniature Art Exhibition at Telford Plaza, Kowloon Bay.
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The awarding of minuscule – or even negative – bonuses to academics at a Chinese university has sparked debate about rampant managerialism in the country’s higher education sector.

Dozens of professors and lecturers held a rare protest at Southwest Minzu University, claiming that the institution’s salary scales favoured those in administrative posts. Displaying banners highlighting their criticisms, the academics shouted: “Give me back my merit pay.”

Under a salary system implemented in December 2019, which coincided with the deduction of two years of pension insurance, one professor claimed to have received an annual bonus of just RMB 8 (91p). Some junior academics reported having negative bonuses listed on their payslips, according to local media.

Academics at the institution said they felt that they had to do more than their administrative peers to prove the value of their work and complained that they got insufficient backing from support staff.

The demonstration went viral on social media, drawing many supportive posts from students that were subsequently deleted.

Reports indicated that the university’s management had promised to invite an independent body to review the salary system, but the institution did not respond to a request for comment from Times Higher Education.

That many Chinese academics online seemed to share the resentment about overbearing management was seen as raising questions about the progress of the modernisation of higher education in the country.

In the government’s Medium- to Long-term Education Reform and Development Plan 2010 – 2020, published a decade ago, education authorities outlined plans to reduce administrative demands on researchers, but critics noted that they set few clear targets or timelines to achieve this.

“The plan is to cancel the over-administration in university governance,” Li Liguo, deputy dean of the School of Education at the Renmin University of China told THE. “The key is to switch from managerialism to service-oriented mentality, for the faculty and students.”

A comparison of administrator-to-faculty ratios from 13 leading global universities and the top 10 Chinese institutions, collated by Professor Li’s team in 2018, indicated that there was still room to expand the ranks of support staff in China to ensure quality of service.

Professor Li highlighted a series of efforts by the government to encourage further reform, including two separate guidelines passed in 2011 and 2014 to acknowledge the legitimacy of university charters and academic committees, and to encourage decentralisation and the delegation of powers to universities and their departments.

However, he was cautious about depicting the relationship between academic and administrative staff as a binary one. He said: “For universities, the ideal way would be collective governance, with an emphasis of the principal position of academic staff and the value of respect, equality, collaboration and communication.”

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