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June 13, 2011
Volume 89, Number 24
pp. 36-37

Reforming Chinese Universities

Challenging China's education system is difficult, as one new institution and its leader are realizing

Shawna Williams

CENTER OF ATTENTION Zhu, the leader of China’s newest university, talks to reporters earlier this year in Beijing.
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When Qingshi Zhu became president of the University of Science & Technology of China in 1998, his goal was simple: to improve the quality of education at the university. And as a distinguished physical chemist who had visited and worked in some of the best universities in the world, he already knew how he wanted to do this. He took a handful of the university’s top brass on a tour of 12 U.S. universities, where they learned about the schools’ curricula and from where they shipped bagfuls of textbooks and other materials back to China.

Zhu was to find that improving the quality of education at Chinese universities was much more difficult than he had expected. His mission would take him from his position as head of one of the country’s leading universities to that of president of a tiny, unaccredited university. It would also make him the face of higher education reform in China.

After the U.S. trip, “we chose many textbooks to recommend to the professors, and we recommended that the university open some new courses, and diminish the number of old, out-of-date courses,” he recalls. “But after a year or so, I found not much had been ac com plished.”

Zhu next posited that the problem was the professors, who were too focused on publishing to care about improving their teaching quality. He again looked abroad for solutions, recruiting most of his new professors from the ranks of Chinese scholars returning from work or study abroad. But after spending years replacing most of the faculty, he was again met with disappointment: The new hires were enthusiastic about teaching while abroad, but after returning to China, they soon adopted their predecessors’ attitude, he says.

“I finally recognized why Chinese universities cannot catch up with world-class universities,” Zhu says. The fundamental problem was the system itself, which gives control of admissions, degree conferral, hiring, promotions, and other important decisions to China’s Ministry of Education, rather than to schools themselves. In that system, professors who publish papers in Science Citation Index-ranked journals can move up in bureaucratic rank, power, and salary—but there are no rewards for good teaching.

Realizing what he was up against, Zhu retired.

But after a year in retirement, Zhu was contacted by a head-hunting company with an unusual opportunity: The government of Shenzhen, mainland China’s wealthiest city, planned to found a top research university modeled after Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and wanted Zhu to be its first president. Initially reluctant to accept, Zhu was eventually persuaded that conditions were ripe for true education reform. He drew up a plan for the new university, which called for abolishing bureaucratic ranks for professors and having institutional autonomy. Only when the Shenzhen government agreed to his plan did Zhu decide to take the job, he says.

Zhu set about recruiting top faculty from universities in China and abroad. His offer was attractive: freedom from having to climb the bureaucratic ladder, an internationally competitive salary, and enough research funds to avoid the need to apply for outside grants. The university also admitted its first class, using not the gaokao—the test that determines admissions for every other mainland Chinese university—but its own combination of pen-and-paper exam; tests of imagination, comprehension, and creativity; a face-to-face interview; and a psychological test.

Of the 50 students admitted, 45 showed up for class when South University of Science & Technology of China (SUSTC) opened its doors in March. Those 45 are taking a significant gamble, because SUSTC is not yet accredited by the country’s Ministry of Education. If the university has not been accredited by the time these students graduate, their diplomas will be nearly worthless in terms of finding a government job or applying to graduate school in China.

Despite this uncertainty, the school’s opening drew much positive attention from China’s media and online commentators, who saw that more was at stake than the fate of a single university: If SUSTC succeeds in operating with autonomy, others will follow. Ultimately, Zhu says, China must develop first-class universities if it is to become a leading country in the world. “If we improve our education system, I think the first effect will be that more and more talented young students will choose to stay in China to study at university and do their graduate school,” he explains. In science and technology fields, he believes, it is young graduate students and postdocs who contribute the most, not senior professors.

When asked about SUSTC’s chances of being accredited, Zhu cites the support of the Shenzhen government and the public as reasons the Ministry of Education must recognize the school sooner or later. A final reason, he says, is that those in the central government themselves recognize the need for reform.

"If we improve our education system ... more talented young students will choose to stay in China to study."

But some believe the city government is wavering. In late April, it put out a job advertisement for two administrators with high official rank to work at SUSTC. When Hong Kong’s Phoenix New Media contacted Zhu to ask about the apparent contradiction between the ad and his frequently stated aim of abolishing such official ranks within the university, he said that he was away on a business trip and did not yet know the exact situation. Since then he has not responded to media requests for comment on the ad, including those from C&EN.

The situation seems clear enough to some observers. Ming Zhang, a political science professor at Renmin University of China and a fellow at the China Media Project who has written about the need for education reform in China, tells C&EN that the ad signals the Shenzhen government’s hesitation about SUSTC. Given this, Zhang sees the school’s future as uncertain.

Back at SUSTC, though, Zhu seems undeterred. Faculty hiring is still under way, as is construction on the school’s sprawling permanent campus, designed to accommodate about 8,000 students. Apart from institutional autonomy and lack of bureaucratic ranks for professors, another of SUSTC’s planned innovations is to eschew traditional departments. “Physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology—all these are hundred-year-old disciplines,” Zhu explains, and aren’t conducive to interdisciplinary work. SUSTC will instead be organized into interdisciplinary research centers focused on issues such as energy. After two years of foundational courses, undergraduates will choose one of the centers as a major.

An advantage SUSTC will have over its counterparts in the West, Zhu says, is that it will have a huge applicant pool from which to recruit truly outstanding students. Ultimately, he says, “our ambition is not only to catch up, but also to become better than U.S. universities.”

Shawna Williams is a freelance journalist based in Chengdu, China. Additional reporting was done by Ablajan Abaydulla.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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