Assessing China’s academic orbit

Yong Zhao believes China doesn’t foster the free thinkers it needs. What is the state of the country’s higher education system?

March 5, 2015

Source: Reuters

At school, pupils work like slaves. But when there’s no master, they do whatever they like. I don’t think the university students work as hard. They can kind of cruise through the situation

In the summer of 2008, the website of one of Beijing’s top-ranked universities carried some rather surprising news. According to what appeared to be an interview with Binglin Gu, the president of Tsinghua University, China’s university system was “pouring shit into the students’ minds”.

“Serious academic corruption, dry and irrelevant to society curriculum, and rote memorisation teaching methods” were leading to students developing “rigid ways of thinking”, progressively losing interest in learning and ultimately emerging from university as “soulless zombies”, the article cited Gu as saying.

“The old-fashioned methods of teaching and teaching material caused our society to lose many Da Vinci’s and Bill Gates…up to now, China has no Nobel prizewinners, which has a lot to do with this kind of education patterns,” it continued.

The article turned out to be an embarrassing hoax planted on the site by hackers, and it was quickly taken down. Nevertheless, to judge by the response on Chinese social media, many felt that the howl of rage against China’s universities contained more than a grain of truth.

Every year, headlines proclaim that Chinese universities have graduated record numbers of students and are catching up with the West in global league tables. But a contending school of thought, and one that is vocal in China itself, argues that the system is deeply flawed.

One of the latest contributions to this debate comes from émigré academic Yong Zhao, professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education, in a book titled Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World (2014).

Zhao, who was raised and educated in China’s southwestern Sichuan province before moving to the US in the early 1990s at the beginning of his academic career, set out to slay what he sees as a dangerous myth of Chinese educational excellence that has taken hold in the West.

In the US and the UK, Zhao writes, politicians have gazed enviously at China’s success in the Programme for International Student Assessment, which compares the abilities of 15-year-olds from different countries in maths, science and reading. Former education secretary Michael Gove visited China shortly after being appointed minister. On his return, he declared that “schools in the Far East are turning out students who are working at an altogether higher level than our own”. UK education, he went on, needed a “cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China”.

Suffice it to say that Zhao’s argument is rather more nuanced than that of the Tsinghua hacker, but the broad thrust is the same: Chinese education is “authoritarian” and crushes creativity, individuality and any intrinsic interest in learning by forcing students to study solely towards the gao kao, the country’s dreaded university entrance exam.

For Zhao, who has been researching the Chinese and American education systems for more than 20 years, the obsession with exams and grades is rooted in China’s history. From the 7th century AD, Chinese emperors used the incredibly demanding keju exam system to select revered imperial administrators. The emperors may be gone, but the system and mentality remains: the smoothest path to high social status is to gain a government office, and this is achieved through gaining top grades and a place at a prestigious university.

While most of Zhao’s book focuses on China’s schools, similar problems are present in the country’s universities, he told Times Higher Education.

At school, pupils work like “forced slaves”, as Zhao puts it. China’s undergraduates, however, are not working towards the gao kao, and so their motivation plummets.

“When there’s no slave master, they [students] do whatever they like,” he says. “I don’t think the [university] students work as hard [as they did in secondary school]…they can kind of cruise through the situation.”

Zhao was recently visited at Oregon by a delegation of university heads from the central city of Xi’an. They complained that their students “really do not study” and instead “apply their creativity to get out of the class without being punished”, Zhao recounts.

Complaints about lack of creativity have implications beyond education: China needs innovators and entrepreneurs to create the new Apples, Googles and Facebooks that will allow its economy to leave manufacturing mode, so the point Zhao raises is at the heart of whether or not China will become the pre-eminent economy and power of the 21st century.

But as Zhao acknowledges, solid data on the quality of university education in China are very difficult to find. So how real is the problem and are his criticisms fair?

Chinese educationalists have worried for a long time that classroom teaching in universities is too “authoritarian”. According to a paper published by Chinese academics last year, “Unmasking the teaching quality of higher education: students’ course experience and approaches to learning in China”, for decades scholars have been concerned that students slavishly follow their lecturers’ instructions like “planets round the sun”.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, surveyed some 2,500 students from 15 (unnamed) universities across mainland China to see whether this was still true.

What they found suggests that little has changed. Students said that their teachers motivated them, and that the course had sharpened their analytical skills. But they also felt that teaching was “ineffective due to the lack of emphasis on training students’ independence”, the paper says.

The study also found that students tended to adopt a “surface” attitude to learning, memorising large amounts of information in preparation for tests rather than developing a “deep” understanding of the material. This problem was particularly pronounced in lower ranked universities.

“These results remind us of the need to re-examine the nature of teaching in Chinese universities,” the authors say. “For a long time university teaching in China has been dominated by teacher centredness and authoritarianism…hence, this kind of authoritarian, passive teaching may cause Chinese university students to only reproduce, rather than seek meaning in the teaching materials.”

The “authoritarian” streak in Chinese higher education hit a ludicrous nadir last September when pictures emerged online of the president of Anhui Xinhua University inspecting new students. While students dressed in military fatigues stood in formation, the president surveyed them from a convertible black Audi, despot-style.

“Hello students!” the president shouted. “Hello leader!” they responded, according to Chinese media. The parade was ridiculed online. “Foreign [university] presidents would never do something like this,” wrote one commentator.

Chinese student surrounded by books

Part of the problem, thinks Zhao, is that even if a Chinese lecturer wants to break with tradition and innovate in their teaching, they may be held back by a cultural expectation that they should continuously instruct students. “A professor may be felt to not be doing their job by allowing discussion,” he explains.

Another hindrance is China’s “student informant system”, which, according to a leaked CIA report in 2010, uses student informers, usually one per class, to monitor professors and classmates for “politically subversive or unconventional views”.

“Student spies” in the classroom deter not only discussion of taboo political topics but also any deviation from what is felt to be the normal way to teach, Zhao believes.

The heavy emphasis on instruction over independent learning is evident in data provided by Genshu Lu, director of the Institute of Higher Education at Xi’an Jiaotong University, and one of the authors of the aforementioned study. According to figures collected in 2003 from students at three (unnamed) research universities, about three-quarters of Chinese students spent at least 16 hours a week in classes. More than a third were receiving instruction for at least 30 hours a week.

Given this heavy workload, it is perhaps no surprise that they did far less work outside the classroom.

More than three-quarters did less than 16 hours of independent study a week, while four in 10 did less than five hours.

In contrast, students at UK universities on average study just over 28 hours a week, half taught, and half independently, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute’s Student Academic Experience Survey 2014.

Lu also provided data showing that the failure rate of Chinese undergraduates dropped from 12 per cent in 2003 to 5 per cent in 2007. This improvement came amid explosive expansion at Chinese universities. In 1998, about 830,000 students graduated from tertiary education. By 2013, that number was nearly 6.4 million.

During this period, China’s top universities have been lavished with money in an attempt to create “world-class” institutions. It has been estimated that the C9 League, sometimes called China’s “Ivy League”, has received about 10 per cent of the country’s research and development expenditure, despite employing only 3 per cent of the staff.

Nevertheless, China’s position in global league tables has not improved in recent years: in 2010-11, there were six universities from mainland China in the top 200 of the THE World University Rankings; four years later, there were only three, with no obvious improvement in their average ranking.

Outside this elite, there is evidence of the huge strain that rapid expansion in student numbers has caused.

A bleak picture emerges from a 2011 study of Yantai University by business and marketing academics from the UK and Australia. Yantai is not featured in any of the major world university rankings or included in the government’s “Project 211” list of more than 100 universities that receive extra money to raise research standards. It has about 30,000 students in the large industrial city in the northeast of China from which it takes its name.

In interviews, university representatives “frankly acknowledge that, although curricula and textbooks are no longer tightly state controlled, education lags behind the rapid dynamism in the broader economy and that graduates do not necessarily have the knowledge and skills that are required in the labour market”.

To accommodate a huge number of new students, Yantai had to borrow heavily to build new student dorms, cafeterias and other buildings. “The huge financial burden, combined with a shortage of teachers, led to a marked deterioration in the quality of education,” according to the paper, “Human resources, higher education reform and employment opportunities for university graduates in the People’s Republic of China”, published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Graduates of Yantai were damning: “All interviewed graduates consider university education outdated, unpractical and static because students are crammed with theories – most of which are not up to date, and they do not have much say in what subjects they undertake.”

They also told researchers that the most important factor in getting a job after graduation was not academic performance but social connections. (Yantai University did not respond to a request for comment.)

It is no secret that some Chinese graduates struggle to find jobs: there are numerous art-icles on the problems facing the unemployed “ant tribes” of Chinese graduates living a precarious existence on the edges of major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. They report data from the China Household Finance Survey, conducted in 2011, that show that 16.4 per cent of recent graduates are unemployed (although more recent reports suggest that the situation may have deteriorated sharply since then). In comparison, the most recent figures show that graduate unemployment in the UK six months after graduation stands at 7.3 per cent, and at about 14 per cent in India, according to the most recent statistics from the Indian Ministry of Labour and Employment.

But the Chinese finance survey also shows that the country’s graduates benefit from a significant graduate premium. Individuals with a university-level education earn more than double those who have only graduated from high school. Those with master’s degrees had an income that was on average 75 per cent higher than those with only a first degree, it also found. In the UK, the income gap is smaller, and narrowing.

And although a 2013 McKinsey report found that more than a third of Chinese companies struggled to recruit skilled workers, firms all over the world report similar problems. Another report in the same year by the consultancy ManpowerGroup stated that international companies in China found filling vacancies no more difficult than the world average. Yao Amber Li, an assistant professor of economics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, does not believe that Chinese graduates are somehow less innovative than those of Europe or North America. “The unemployment is a structural issue [in the economy]…therefore, the structural change in China’s economy can also help solve this,” she says.

Without comparative international data on graduate abilities – if such a comparison is even possible – it is difficult to know the extent to which China’s educational problems are unique.

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, believes that while there is “much truth” in Zhao’s critique of China’s education system, his book is “part of the long-standing Chinese approach of modesty in achievement and the incessant pressure to do better”.

He says a “deep commitment to continuous self-betterment is built into the thinking of every child in China from an early age”, often described as the Confucian ethic of self-cultivation.

“Associated with this personal ethic is the belief that it is not talent but hard work that makes people successful, and modesty in relation to what has been achieved so far,” says Marginson. “Instead of marketing – and often exaggerating – their achievements, as in the English-speaking countries, Chinese people, institutions and governments tend to emphasise how far they still have to go, no matter how much they have accomplished. This fosters continuing improvement.

“The critic shares that value set with the cultural system he criticises,” Marginson says of Zhao.

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