A Brake on Enrollment
protests draw attention to problems with
China’s graduate school recruitment system
By FENG JIANHUA
A POPULAR TEST: They are among the growing
number of students registering for the graduate recruitment
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
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
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.
NEXT? As students from Zhejiang University celebrate
their graduation day, many are already preparing to begin
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
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
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.
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
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
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