CHINA: Universities still have problems

With a rural background, Xiong Bingqi was one of the few among his peers in the countryside of Sichuan province to have made it to Shanghai's prestigious Jiaotong University. Since graduating in 1994 he has remained in Shanghai, but rather than chasing after lucrative jobs, he has become a staunch advocate for higher education reform.

The problem with China's higher education system is "the lack of real universities", says the bold author and professor who drew widespread attention in 2004 with the publication of his first book Universities Have Problems, a collection of his essays on scandals in academia.

Removing the bureaucrat-led system is vital, maintains Xiong. "The ideal modern university is one with academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and governance by professors and students. There needs to be a reasonable relationship between the education providers, educators and those being educated. Based on these standards, there is really no true modern university in our country at the moment.

"As I always say, the problem with our universities is there isn't any university in the true sense, not to mention world-class universities," Xiong says.

Indeed, having been a deputy chief of the ruling Communist Party propaganda department at Shanghai Jiaotong University for years until 2009, he knows full well the workings of the country's universities and their failures. And he is convinced of the need for an end to the party's excessive intervention in academia.

Communist cadres call the shots on campuses. Each university is under the leadership of a party secretary, supported by a sizeable team of deputy secretaries and administrative officials. Institutions have an average of 150 cadres in the management team alone, excluding those scattered in faculties.

These officials often do not have an academic background, yet they make decisions on issues ranging from setting majors, curriculum planning and performance evaluation to the distribution of funds.

Bringing in a sound management system is like installing a 'firewall' against malpractices. "Now, we do not even have a firewall," sighs casually dressed Xiong at Jiaotong's Faculty Club, a dimly lit, sparsely equipped low-rise near the entrance of the university's city campus.

It is well-known that many academics pay more attention to cultivating ties with influential officials to secure their career development than to serious scholarship, as the prevalent bureaucratisation has fuelled the desire for official ranks even among academics.

The 38-year-old father and electrical engineering graduate with a PhD in enterprise management from Shanghai Jiaotong is prepared for a long battle for reform: there seems to be no end to the string of scandals plaguing the country's institutions.

Lavish spending on facilities such as guest houses on campus has made newspaper headlines. Reports abound of other misuses of funds for purposes such as stock speculation and even recruitment of academic staff.

Since the late 1990s, top institutions have invested much time and money recruiting famous professors from abroad or scientists with impressive official titles, such as academicians who are also members of government funding bodies or academic assessment panels.

And not just to bolster their standing. Such recruitments are often intended to cultivate useful ties or facilitate future funding approval. They come at the expense of up-and-coming academics who have worked for years at an institution but now face limited promotional prospects and stretched-thin resources, Xiong laments.

Harvard-based Hong Kong-born mathematician Yau Shing-tung led a barrage of criticism against institutions, hitting out specifically at Peking University where 40% of academic staff were recruited from abroad. He says most professors hired on exorbitant salaries cannot possibly work full-time there because they also hold positions at their home universities.

Bureaucratic interference is also blamed for the deeply worrying trend of academic fraud, with problems including plagiarism, forged degrees, falsification of research data and ghost-writing theses and papers.

Being non-experts, officials put in charge of matters ranging from staff employment and promotions to funding allocations place undue emphasis on the quantity rather than quality of work.

A policy that links research output with cash prizes, housing benefits or other perks has prompted many academics to churn out large quantities of research findings at the expense of teaching - and, worst of all, frequently through cheating.

Now with four books on educational issues under his belt, Xiong is also the voluntary deputy director of the Beijing-based research organisation, the 21st Century Education Development Research Institute.

Its director Professor Yang Dongping, another well-respected education expert, is a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology's Educational Sciences Research Institute and editor of the Blue Book of Education series, published annually on education in China and the latest reform proposals.

Xiong joined the institute at Yang's request following the runaway success of his first book. Yang is equally critical of the power wielded by campus-based officials.

"Some have little interest in academic affairs and only regard their position as a stepping stone to higher official ranks in the future. They push for an improved standing of their institution for the sake of their own career advancements," Yang says.