When Manzi Lai finished high school in Turpan in China's far western Xinjiang region, she applied to study at Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu, the sprawling capital of Sichuan Province.
The university accepted Lai, who belongs to the Uighur ethnic group which numbers nine million people in Xinjiang, to a one-year remedial training programme that emphasises Chinese-language instruction.
Next year she will start an undergraduate degree programme at Southwest or at a mainstream Chinese university.
"It's good here," Lai said on a breezy afternoon in Chengdu as she crossed the campus wearing fashionable pink leggings, a grey sweatshirt and a black headscarf. "The environment is nice and the people are friendly."
Southwest and 12 other Minzu ('nationalities') universities were set up after the Communist Revolution in 1947, administered by China's State Ethnic Affairs Commission. They specialise in educating minority students from China's regions with an estimated 110 million ethnic minority population, including sizeable Mongolian, Tibetan and Uighur communities with their own language and culture.
Under current policy, nationalities universities assist ethnic minority students by offering them lower admissions standards, extra points on entrance exams, one-year remedial training courses, and post-graduation work placements in minority regions.
"Over 90 universities and colleges receive minority students in China, and the percentage of minority students has increased because we have new schools enlarging enrolments," Shi Jian, Vice-president of Sichuan University, told University World News.
The 240,000 students enrolled this year in China's Minzu universities represent an overall increase of 90,000 students from 2005, Yang Jing, Minister of China's State Ethnic Affairs Commission, told the official Xinhua news agency in November.
Yang said increasing enrolment figures coincided with rising gross domestic product and declining rates of poverty in China's ethnic minority regions, including Xinjiang and Tibet.
But the overall increase in minority enrolments of around 37% pales against a growth rate of around 75% in undergraduate students during the same period in China's universities overall, from around 4.7 million students in 2005 to an estimated 6.3 million this year, with much of the growth in China's booming coastal provinces.
According to Kai Yu of the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiaotong University, provincial governments, including those with sizeable ethnic minorities, can decide on or influence the difficulty of university entrance exam papers and the balance of in-province and out-of-province students.
But he notes that "the economically developed provinces not only produce more tertiary education graduates, they also fund their education better". This is a major reason why minority students and those from poorer provinces have difficulty getting into 'good' universities in China.
Now there is growing concern that decades-old programmes designed to help minority students are not effective.
The proportion of ethnic minority students studying at Chinese universities has not kept pace with an expansion of the nation's higher education system, particularly at China's top-tier universities, said Gerard Postiglione, Director of the Wah Ching Center of Research on Education in China at the University of Hong Kong.
In spite of China's ostensibly pro-minority education policies, roughly 45 of its 55 officially designated ethnic minority groups have education levels below the national average, Postiglione said.
"There's a lot of debate, and not just among scholars, about why China should perpetuate a system where minorities are poor compared to Han Chinese," concurred Dru Gladney, an anthropologist and expert in China's minority policies at California's Pomona College.
China's ethnic minority education policy is failing to bridge the growing wealth disparity between coastal areas and its interior border regions, he added. "The Chinese government tends to paint a rosy picture by talking about how literacy is going up, but most people feel that in the market economy, there's been a downturn in benefits for minorities."
"Under the old centralised system, the government used to spend a lot of money on the border areas," Gladney added. "But now they're relying on the market economy, and many of these ['nationalities'] universities have suffered as a result, because their funding hasn't kept pace."
Chinese academics have been debating the flaws in China's autonomous-area Minzu policies for some years now, but particularly since the 2009 Xinjiang riots, said Gladney, with more and more people suggesting education reform.
"Domestic critics of China's minority education policy want to know, "Why have a policy if it's not working?"
One suggestion has been to grant minority students special privileges based on economic need rather than ethnic status.
"It's very competitive to get into [Chinese] colleges these days, especially the better schools, and when you have minorities getting an advantage, there's a groundswell of resentment" among members of China's Han majority, said Gladney.
Ethnic minority students face other unique challenges that are not mitigated by special consideration in minorities universities. One is finding work after graduation in poor border regions. "In places like Xinjiang, Uighurs feel like they're being cut out of the job market because Han Chinese are coming in and taking all the jobs," Gladney said.
Recent education-related protests appeared to highlight that perceived alienation.
Tibetan students expressed public frustration after the Qinghai provincial government on 22 October announced that by 2015, Chinese primary school textbooks must be written in Chinese. Notably, protests over the Qinghai policy spread to Beijing's Minzu University for Minorities (formerly Central University for Nationalities).
A week before the Qinghai controversy, a first-year Tibetan student at Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu told University World News that he was already frustrated by the university's Tibetan studies curriculum.
Standing near an outdoor ping-pong practice area, he recalled arriving in Chengdu a few months ago to study Tibetan heritage, and had been disappointed to learn that his courses would be taught in Chinese.
"Tibetan students here really want to learn in Tibetan," said the student, who speaks Chinese and estimates he is one of 500 Tibetan students among over 20,000 students at Chengdu University. "But our teachers teach us in Chinese so it's hard to understand them!"
This policy disadvantages minority students throughout their education and into the job market, something that the minorities policy at universities has done little to alleviate.
TIBET: Language policy threatens tertiary access
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