China's Universities Are Trying to Compete Four Years after Political Turmoil, the Effects of Reform Are Forcing China to Reconsider How It Educates Its Power Elite
Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
THERE was a time when Beijing University was assured of enrolling China's brightest and best. No longer.
Last year, the prestigious university failed to fill its freshman class, rebuffed by hundreds of students anxious to avoid required one-year military training and the grip of Beijing's communist ideologues.
Government officials and university administrators contend that Beida, as the university is known in Chinese shorthand, fell only six to 10 students short of the planned class of 2,220. But many professors and observers say the shortfall was several hundred, forcing the university to lower admissions standards and acknowledge a new competition in Chinese higher education.
"Beijing was considered the best city in China to study, but that's changing," says a professor at Beijing Normal University, among the capital's elite institutions. "Now students want to stay in the south or be on the coast because they have more opportunities and can make more money."
Four years after political upheaval shook Beijing campuses, reforms in the economy and higher learning are changing how China educates its power elite. Under orthodox Marxism in China, these universities often were considered tools of ideology and indoctrination. They recruited only the most politically reliable for training as party technocrats and economic planners.
Now, financial crisis and market reforms are rewriting the role of universities in a changing society. A new moneyed elite is emerging, relying on the clout of the marketplace more than a diploma and political connections.
"In China, people were educated to be officials and serve the communist regime. Now the sacredness of being an official is fading away, because current policy allows individuals to find their own breathing space outside the official hierarchy," says Chen Xiaoping, a law professor at Beijing's University of Politics and Law who lost his job for his role in the 1989 democracy movement. "In the future, the elite will not be centered in Beijing and people's ideas of prestigious universities will change."
Recently, the government has prodded Beijing's staid campuses into new policies that will reshape the pinnacle of the world's largest education system, analysts say.
After years of official reticence to expand university enrollment and take the political risk of recruiting more educated youths for urban campuses, the government plans to double student numbers in higher education and adult education institutions to 5.5 million by the turn of the century, says Zhou Yuanqing, director of higher education at the State Education Commission.
One hundred universities, about one-tenth of China's higher education institutions, will be expanded and strengthened, and two-year and three-year colleges will be added.
Both students and administrations will gain autonomy under the changes. With shrinking government funds providing less than 80 percent of college budgets today, state-funded students, once the cream of the crop, are sharing classrooms with more youths paying their own tuition, a signal that money, more than political connections, will decide who goes to college in China in the future. …