The Real Winners


A Brake on Enrollment

Professors’ protests draw attention to problems with
China’s graduate school recruitment system


A POPULAR TEST: They are among the growing number of students registering for the graduate recruitment entrance exam

In late June, Professor He Weifang at Peking University’s School of Law wrote in an open letter to his school director that he would temporarily stop enrolling master’s degree students for 2006. In a sense, his bold move is a protest against China’s current graduate school enrollment system practiced since the resumption of the graduate recruitment education system in 1978, which he views as lopsided and overly rigid after decades-long practice.

Professor He said the present graduate school entrance examination works well when it comes to selecting knowledgeable students, but not necessarily students with strong expertise in a specific field. While an increasing number of students are being accepted into post-graduate degree programs, many bright talents aren’t getting in because of this rigid enrollment process.

He took great pains in trying to change the system, but his efforts were to no avail. Finally, believing that most professors at Chinese graduate schools are in agreement with his views, He decided to suspend the enrollment of master’s candidates.

Professor He is a renowned scholar with extensive social influences in China’s jurisprudential and judicial circles. Years ago, under great pleas from He, China completed the successful judicial reform on its judges’ trappings, replacing the military guard uniform long-worn by judges with a cape.

Currently, He’s refusal to recruit master candidates has won a big round of applause from the public. His supporters hope his action will break the ice on the issue and make some improvements in the educa-tional system.

As it turns out, He’s protest wasn’t an isolated incident. Not long before his open letter, Chen Danqing, a world-renowned painter and professor at the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University in Beijing, reportedly submitted his resignation to the university authorities to show his disagreement with the current student enrollment system. Although he didn’t leave the university instantly, he shortened the termination of his contract to 2007, also causing a sensation in the process.

The 47-year-old artist, who first brightened the fine art circle in China 20 years ago with his Tibet Series oil paintings, returned to the country “permanently” after 18 years in New York City early this year to teach at Tsinghua University. As an academic leader and world-famous artist, Chen frequently participates in public affairs and has a significant amount of social influence.

WHAT’S NEXT? As students from Zhejiang University celebrate their graduation day, many are already preparing to begin advanced degrees

Peking University and Tsinghua University (famed as China’s equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) represent the top notch in the country’s higher education system and the direction for an overall educational reform. In such a short period of time, two well-known academics from the two prestigious universities took radical steps to show their disagreement with the current graduate education system, which may center our special attention on the educational reform issue again.

Zhuo Zeyuan, professor at the Politics and Law Department of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China, said, “We should not regard this as a chance event, but a challenge to the current educational system, which relates to the transformation and establishment of our future educational aims, concepts and values.”

The actions of the two professors have sparked a nationwide debate about some of the long-established practices in graduate school recruitment. Many agree that China’s graduate school recruitment and education formula badly need reforming. The process of selecting students for higher education has been widely criticized for its rigidity, as many genuinely gifted students have been barred by the system.

Rapid Expansion in Enrollment

In recent years, China has experienced an ever-increasing demand for higher education, apparent in the hiring preferences of employers. Students who have experienced the job-seeking competitive process likely have a deeper sense of this social phenomenon. It is common that purely vocational positions require employees with a master’s degree in present job market. The fact that recruiting companies prefer candidates with advanced degrees makes graduate schools even more enticing to students.

The misleading signal from the job market is that people’s ability is only judged by their diplomas. This will inevitably undermine the postgraduate education system.

“It’s really hard to find a good job without a master’s degree,” said a junior student from a famous university in Beijing. He majored in computer science and technology, and five or six years ago, it wasn’t tough to find a decent job in this field. But starting from 2002, when the first batch of graduate expansion enrollment students with master’s degrees poured into the job market, finding employment became more of a challenge.

“Now, the recruiting companies always require such high degrees as master’s or above. The undergraduates are facing great employment pressure from the competition,” the frustrated student said. “We have no alternative but to pursue higher degrees above bachelor.”

Just a few years ago, students from popular majors at China’s first-class institutions of higher education, such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, were in great demand by society. Nowadays, these undergraduate students have been forced into the process of graduate recruitment enrollment. At least 70 percent of an entire graduating class is likely to be registered for the graduate school entrance examination.

Statistics released by the Ministry of Education show that the higher education system has expanded very quickly during the last two years. In 2005, the number of students registered for the graduate recruitment examination was 1.17 million, 227,000 more compared with the number of last year with an increase of 24.1 percent. Among them, 605,000 earned a bachelor degree that year, accounting for 51.6 percent.

What forces are driving this rapid expansion of higher education enrollment? An Internet community poll carried out by the commercial website Sina showed that 60 percent of respondents would choose the severe employment situation as the reason, while less than 1 percent wanted to study at an advanced level for self-improvement and fulfillment.

For universities seeking to take in more graduate students, the tuition fees from additional numbers of self-funded students will bring significant economic benefit. As well, some higher education schools only show their strength by their growing enrollment and large number of subjects taught, but not the quality of education.

Another phenomenon worthy of attention is the enrollment expansion for doctoral degrees. The latest statistics show that, at present, the number of doctoral students in Chinese universities has already exceeded 130,000, next only to the United States and Germany. In 2004, the number of newly enrolled doctoral students reached 53,000, while that number has been maintained at around 40,000 in the United States.

At some higher education schools in China, the enrollment of new doctoral students has exceeded 1,000. In comparison, at the world’s top universities, such as Harvard and Stanford, fewer than 600 degrees are conferred every year.

The rapid expansion of enrollment, especially when the reason is simply to see an increase in the number of graduate students, lowers the recruitment threshold and the resulting problems include a limited faculty and teaching resources incapable of supporting such a large pool of students.

On average, professors at China’s universities are assigned to act as advisors to 5.77 doctoral students, far above the rate of their foreign counterparts. For the advisors of master’s degree students, the ratio might reach as high as 1:20. Meanwhile, some professors, busy with academic and social activities, have little opportunity to communicate with the students they are advising. An extreme example is that some advisors can’t even recall the names of their students when graduation comes.

Maintaining Quality

Today, more and more universities and colleges in China focus on basic knowledge training, seeking to improve the comprehensive quality and job-seeking capacity of the broad scope of students being enrolled. But at the post-graduate level, some administrators still hold the same idea, causing conflicts with the principle of those research-oriented experts and professors.

Starting last year, the graduate school entrance examination for Peking University’s School of Law changed its focus from looking at the applicants’ specific professional knowledge to their overall base of knowledge on the subjects, which has infuriated Professor He.

According to He, the new examination structure is too general and doesn’t test deeply enough the knowledge of research-oriented students, especially those interested in legal history and jurisprudence--his areas of specialty.

As for Professor Chen Danqing, for four consecutive years he has failed to recruit even a single graduate student. Though some candidates had done very well in their chosen major, they could not earn a spot because they failed the English language or politics component of the nationwide entrance examination.

Many people hold that the education of graduate students is a serious matter. It cannot be usurped to realize some people’s rags-to-riches dream, nor can it be allowed to degenerate into a mass-production base for master’s degree holders. The state needs to change its role from one of direct management to one of providing higher education policy guidance, through supervision, coordination, evaluation and accreditation, and information services. China is now moving in this direction.

Earlier this month, China’s Ministry of Education announced its decision on the stricter control of requirements for the awarding of doctoral degrees by universities. In the meantime, Tianjin Nankai University said it would rescind the degrees of unqualified graduate students. It also publicized the names of students who had failed to earn their doctoral degrees in the last 10 years.

Different from the strict graduation policies of Western countries, the higher education system in China is focused on strict entrance examinations. Competition is furious at the entrance stage, but if the students are able to manage the difficult task of getting into a graduate program, they are in essence guaranteed a degree.

Therefore, many students who apply for graduate schools are not genuinely interested in doing research. For them, a master’s degree is simply a way of getting a decent job and securing their future. It’s no wonder that people are questioning the overall quality of current graduate students. Some educational experts believe that Nankai University is setting a good example of educational system reform, with its emphasis shifting from the pursuit of quantity to quality, and with strict requirements put in place for graduation.

Feeling pressure from Professor He’s action of ceasing to enroll graduate students, Peking University is trying out some new methods to reform the qualification process of professors who advise doctoral students in order to ensure the quality of advisors. The qualification of advisors is no longer pegged to their seniority or age, and being an advisor is no longer an automatic, life-long title.

In accordance with the new provisions and stipulations of Peking University, professors and lecturers, whether young or old, and no matter how large their reputations, can all apply for positions as advisors of doctoral students, accompanied by scien-tific research costs and the right to award doctoral degrees on their research subjects authorized by the educational administrative department. Since professors are the elite of universities, they should shoulder more responsibility than before. Moreover, if a doctoral student fails to graduate in consecutive years, the university may take away the professor’s qualifications as an advisor.

The pioneering actions taken by professors He Weifang and Chen Danqing pose a significant challenge to the current graduate school enrollment system and demonstrate the responsibility of professors in advancing the reform of China’s higher education system.