21 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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CHINA: More autonomy for universities

Moves to give China's universities more autonomy under far-reaching education reforms will mean they have more say over enrolments and international exchanges, Chinese officials told the Going Global conference in London.

China already has 188 education partnerships but Vice-president of Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University Professor Xie Weihe admitted many of the agreements could not be carried out and were just on paper.

Last year, $2.5 billion of China's research funding came from abroad, he said. "There is strong support for higher level student exchanges."

The far-reaching national mid and long-term education reform of 2010-20 is currently undergoing major public consultations that ended last week. The reforms suggest stripping away the hierarchical administration of universities and giving them more freedom to make changes as they aspire to 'world class' status.

Covering every aspect of education from kindergarten to postgraduate research, the 2020 reform is regarded as the most radical since 1949. It has been described by some as converting a rigid and archaic Soviet-style system into a more modern model closer to the education systems of the West.

"We will support universities to collaborate with partners in other countries in terms of staff and student exchanges, credit transfer, joint degree programmes and joint research projects," said an official speaking on behalf of Zhang Xuiqin, Director General of international cooperation and exchanges in the Ministry of Education.

The quality of existing exchanges would be strengthened to help produce "Chinese graduates with international perspectives and competitiveness", the official said.

Another education ministry official said there would be a lot more collaboration with western universities, but China would also attract more students from East Asia. "There will be a balance of regional and global approaches," she said.

China is projecting that foreign students in China, currently about 220,000, will more than double to around 500,000.

Professor Shi Jian, Vice-president of Sichuan University, said his students hosted many students from Japan and Korea, and was developing a new strategy of rotating between the home university and Japan or Korea. This is loosely based on Europe's Erasmus Mundus scholarship programme which rotates students between two or three universities to complete a programme.

Meanwhile, Xie said Qinghua currently hosted some 2,700 overseas students, mostly at the postgraduate level.

"There is not a single course taught in English. If you can provide English courses for them it will be easier," he said suggesting a possible future route for the university once it was accorded more autonomy.

More private initiatives, particularly in higher education, vocational training and management would be allowed and some 'commercialisation' would be sanctioned for the higher education sector, the officials said.

Universities would also have greater say in recruiting students: "We allocated some of the scholarships to the universities for the first time so they can choose which student to give scholarships," the education ministry official said.

The much-criticised university admissions system will be revamped. Admissions currently depend entirely on examination scores in the annual high-stakes gaokao or national college entrance examination. This filters only the top 25% of more than 10 million students who take the exam each year.

More interviews and other educational criteria would be introduced under the reform to reduce the huge stress of the gaokao on students and their families.

* Although China generally shuns international aid during major disasters, university partners in other countries have been called on for rapid assistance, in particular in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed some 70,000 and injured hundreds of thousands.

Professor Shi Jian, Vice-president of Sichuan University, told the conference, "After the earthquake we called on the expertise of all our partners. Five days after the quake [representatives from the partner universities] were travelling within the quake zone and set up a post-natural disaster fund."

They also helped set up a post-natural disaster school to train nurses and doctors and to redesign and re-establish local businesses.

Sichuan has close links with universities in South Korea and Japan which has particular expertise in earthquake relief.

Longer term, a number of Sichuan partner universities in Canada, Britain and the US are working on projects to retrain, rebuild and rehabilitate within the devastated region.
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