Scholars sceptical of China’s new anti-corruption majors

New university pathway meant to boost talent, but academics concerned over graduate retention

November 22, 2022
Guard standing in thick fog in China to illustrate Scholars sceptical of China’s new anti-corruption majors
Source: Alamy

As numerous Chinese universities launch anti-corruption majors, scholars have questioned whether the courses are the most effective way of producing public sector employees with the desired skills.

In coming months, 16 universities in China plan to establish undergraduate majors in “inspection and supervision”, with some institutions establishing postgraduate offerings in the area, according to regional media.

The move comes at the beginning of Xi Jinping’s third term as president, during which he has pledged to continue his campaign of cracking down on corruption in government.

Academics speaking to Times Higher Education agreed on China’s need for more skilled graduates to root out administrative misconduct. But they raised concerns about the future employability of students majoring in the topic and their retention in the public sector.

Alex He, a senior fellow researching Chinese politics at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Canada-based thinktank, was pessimistic about graduates’ job prospects and attractiveness in the private sector.

“Only government departments would likely be interested in hiring students majoring in the discipline of inspection and supervision…It seems [a] government job is pretty much the only option they have, especially under the circumstances of the dismal job market in today’s China,” he said.

He questioned whether it was necessary to create a major or special courses in corruption to tackle the issue. According to media reports, the courses will likely include lectures on public administration, law and the Chinese political system, with students also learning specific investigation skills and receiving training in economics and business.

“The required experiences, skills and capacity to handle corruption issues will not be learned from school, but from practice,” he said.

William Hurst, the Chong Hua professor of Chinese development at the University of Cambridge, was similarly sceptical about the need for specially tailored courses to fight corruption.

He cautioned that training students with sought-after skills was not the same as ensuring that they filled talent gaps.

“The state may face the same challenge, ultimately, that it does with some judges and procurators – retaining these graduates, many of whom might want to seek out more lucrative employment with private law firms or corporations,” he said.

Still, Professor Hurst pointed out, the recent creation of China’s National Supervision Commission – a specialised state agency to investigate and prosecute corruption – explained the development of such curricula.

“It seems the new university courses are at least in part aimed at training up new cohorts of officials to serve in the supervision commission,” he said.

While the wide-scale development of the major is new, the idea began more than a decade ago, said Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University.

He noted that since 2008, some universities had mulled creating a discipline for inspection and supervision. In that time, dozens of university-affiliated research institutes in the area have been established.

Professor Huang predicted that future alumni of programmes in this area would be needed not only by government departments, but also to staff the teaching and research positions “expected to build up a new discipline”, to meet an “urgent need” for more workers in the area.

Jiangnan Zhu, an associate professor in politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, was upbeat about the courses’ potential to feed into both government and industry needs as well as to “build up young people’s civic values”, increasing their awareness of ethics.

“How large a role universities can play is probably hard so say,” she said. “But creating this new major is an original idea.”

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