China's educational revolution

The market revolution transforming China's economy is dramatically altering its higher education system. Suddenly Chinese higher education must accommodate to the marketplace and American universities can be a model in that endeavor.

The most obvious change is a new emphasis on preparing students to compete for jobs. Since World War II, the role of Chinese higher education has been defined by governmental and ideological needs. For most of the last half century, and especially during the Cultural Revolution, access to and success in college was heavily dependent upon allegiance to the Communist Party.

Equally significant, graduates of China's universities were placed in jobs by the government, told in which part of the country to perform those jobs, and paid roughly the same wages.

Guaranteed job placement is quickly disappearing. University graduates seek the best job they can find wherever they can find it. They have to show what they can do. And their salaries will vary in the competitive job market, with the highest paid by the multinational corporations setting up shop in China's cities.

The consequences of this shift are revolutionary. Students are asking what kinds of skills will they need when they graduate and whether they are being taught them. They are demanding substantial changes in the curriculum--more interdisciplinary and more technologically sophisticated programs. Questions about their university's curriculum lead to questions about facilities, teaching and the overall quality of their professors.

As more than one high university administrator told me, "We have first-rate students and second-rate faculty."

A second consequence of the market economy's impact is an increase in competition among students. University classrooms formerly empty in the evenings and on weekends are now filled with students studying; small, crowded dormitory rooms are often difficult places to study. Cheating may be on the rise as students struggle to get high grades. And diploma seeking is threatening to become the new ethic in Chinese higher education.

The shift toward a greater market orientation is also leading to greater differentiation and competition. Universities are gaining more autonomy from state controls. Private vocational colleges offer admission to students who fail the national entrance examination to the public universities and claim they teach marketplace skills.

Money has become the new watchword. Teaching technological skills requires costly equipment. Fundraising has become a new necessity. The Hewlett-Packard Corporation recently funded Beijing University's business school. Investments in the stock market are being made; the prices of China Telecom or North China Pharmaceuticals are as carefully monitored as Microsoft and General Motors by American university leaders, especially as government funding declines.

The admiration with which the Chinese view the market success of American universities suggest that extraordinary parallels between the two systems are evolving.

U.S. higher education is being driven by consumers' demands for degrees and skills, and thus access to jobs. Americans overwhelmingly believe that going to college is necessary for economic success. There is substantial variability in the higher education market, from the high-priced boutiques of the selective, residential, full-time name-brand colleges and universities to the open enrollment, inexpensive, part-time, vocationally-focused convenience institutions.

China is not going to immediately create a similar structure. Central government planning remains too powerful. The trends are nonetheless unmistakable and say as much about the shape of the new China as anything else we are likely to observe.

Marvin Lazerson is the Carruth Family Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education.

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Originally published on May 14, 1998