By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
BEIJING - After more than a decade of a government-funded push for China to build world-class universities, the country is still struggling to reach global standards in education.
A long-awaited draft blueprint on reforms will be released after the Chinese New Year holidays, with an overhaul of tertiary colleges a key focus.
While a top Western scholar has recently lauded China for the rise of its universities, analysts and the Chinese media suggest that the reverse rings true.
There have been mounting criticisms here that campuses are run like government bureaucracies, with party apparatchiks and administrators sidelining lecturers and researchers.
Even though Yale University president Richard Levin earlier this month praised Chinese investment in college education in the past decade as 'staggering', Chinese scholars observed that more money has not translated into better schools.
'In the past few years, China's top universities have improved their outward appearance,' said analyst Xiong Bingqi of the 21st Century Education Research Institute. 'They have expanded their campuses, enrolled more students, signed up more PhD candidates and produced more dissertations.
'But in terms of the quality of education and research, there hasn't been much change. In fact, you could say it has got worse,' he added.
The Shanghai Morning Post said: 'In terms of achievement and talents, Chinese universities are getting further away from being 'world-class' institutions. In fact, their credibility continues to decline.'
The numbers, as quoted by Professor Levin in his speech titled The Rise Of Asia's Universities, are impressive: China was spending 1.5 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on higher education by 2006, nearly triple the share of GDP it spent a decade earlier. There will be 6.3 million students graduating this year, against just one million in 1997.
As Prof Levin pointed out, the expansion of higher education in China is 'faster than ever before in human history'.
But scholars in the country have taken pains to point out that going fast does not mean it is going well.
In 1998, the government ordered a massive jump in the number of graduates, and intake has since increased by up to 30 per cent year-on-year for much of the past decade. Annual enrolment leapt by an astonishing six times.
New impressive campuses have been built, but student-faculty ratio has not kept pace, training facilities are inadequate, and colleges are grabbing as many students as possible simply to boost their revenues.
Even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has slammed some universities for having become very profit-driven, reported the China News network this month. He warned that it was a 'potentially fatal' problem.
More importantly, the Chinese economy is not prepared for this upsurge of graduates and a fifth of each cohort struggle to find jobs every year.
Analysts blame the university administrators, who are more interested in political achievements than academic results.
The Chinese Communist Party retains control of the universities, with each institution's party secretary having more power than the university president.
This anomaly was also noted by Prof Levin, who described it as a potential obstacle to success in China.
Professor Han Shuifa from Peking University said the politicisation of Chinese universities is the biggest impediment to their development.
But he added that there have been improvements in recent years, with greater awareness in China of the universities' problems, and more funding for research and talent.
It helped, too, that top colleges such as Peking and Tsinghua have been allowed to operate on a different level from most of the other 2,000 universities.
They are allowed, for example, to try out the American model of undergraduate curriculum, giving students two years to explore a variety of subjects before deciding on their majors. This is a sharp break from the traditional way Chinese universities operate, where students choose their majors when they apply for admission, and have few chances of switching to other disciplines.
The flexibility will give young people greater exposure, said Tsinghua University undergraduate Ji Wenjie, who attends an 'experimental class' that allows students to explore mathematics, physics and other natural sciences.
Said the 19-year-old: 'I think it is necessary that university students in China be given more freedom to switch their majors or to decide their majors at a later stage, because university should be a place where you get to explore and develop your interests.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.