Media coverage of higher education – From propaganda to watchdog

In many senses, the media is still state controlled in China and does not enjoy genuine freedom of speech. Yet the relationship between the media and higher education is multi-faceted, highlighting changing roles, focuses and approaches.

Roughly, three stages can be discerned.

In the first stage, from the 1950s through to the early 1980s, media coverage of higher education basically served the state propaganda agenda, showcasing government directives and opinions and how success was achieved by following government policy.

When China adopted its reform policy in the early 1980s, a market economy emerged as well as divergent interests. The media was then gradually used for communicating ideas and opinions in order to build a normative base on which further reform initiatives could be carried out efficiently and effectively.

This function of media coverage of higher education could be observed, for example, when the Chinese government was set to charge tuition fees to university students, to dramatically expand higher education enrolment and to invest in a small number of selected universities with the aim of heightening their status around the world.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, with a market economy in place and an increasingly democratised Chinese society, the media has been playing the role of a watchdog of higher education. Notably, this last stage runs more or less parallel to the process of higher education expansion.

Different focuses and approaches

These three stages feature different focuses on higher education and different approaches to covering it.

Media coverage of higher education used to be always descriptive and positive, portraying how successfully universities and colleges served the human resource needs of the socialist government within the framework of a planned economy – perhaps with a few exceptions during such political movements as the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Cultural Revolution, when there were leadership tensions.

In the reform era, the media started to be analytical and critical when a divergence of interests became the norm. Thus, over time, the media has played a changing role, moving from a purely government propaganda vehicle to a social voice and a position as watchdog of the higher education sector.

In this process, the media has shifted its focus on higher education, from telling the stories of its achievements, to focusing on debates and controversies as well as mistakes that have been made and failures.

The media is now equipped to raise the hot issues concerning higher education – for instance, those relating to the national university entrance examination (gaokao) and university graduate unemployment, combining them with other problems linked to the recent expansion of higher education (for instance, a deterioration in quality and equity) and analysing them in an increasingly critical manner.

Most recently a Hunan television programme – literally titled “Questioning gaokao in God’s name”, available here, applied an extremely critical approach to the brutal reality of the gaokao, and even challenged the necessity of its existence.

In this programme, the gaokao was portrayed as inhuman – in a couple of cases entrants were not even informed of the death of their parents so that they could do the exam without distractions, because it is deemed to be so important and to make such a difference to their future – and as a vehicle for exacerbating social inequity – entrants in Beijing and Shanghai are 40 to 50 times more likely to have access to China’s top universities compared to their peers in Anhui and Hunan, with the former two places representing China’s developed regions and the latter two more underdeveloped regions.

The media’s critical coverage extends to many other issues and problems pertaining to higher education, including the mental health of university students (an increasing number are committing suicide), the commercialisation of higher education (financial pressure is more and more shifted onto students' families), widespread plagiarism and misconduct among faculty and students, and the ‘diploma mill’ scenario in an environment of increasing private and transnational institutions and programmes.

Academic fraud

The media can take credit for its coverage of the growing problem of academic misconduct among faculty and students. Only a decade or so ago, the Chinese public and even academic communities were not fully aware that such misconduct needed to be dealt with seriously.

Viewed as a bourgeois characteristic, intellectual property did not take root in China in the revolutionary period so it was not really respected.

Some scholars thought copying the ideas and work of someone else showed they agreed with and approved of his or her perspective, and growing numbers became opportunists, taking advantage of such ‘shortcuts’ to achieve better productivity.

A turning point came in the early 2000s, when a US-trained Chinese scholar Fang Shimin – better known by his pen name Fang Zhouzi – launched his fraud-busting website New Threads, established in 2001. The website detects and discloses cases of plagiarism and other academic misconduct by Chinese researchers, and it increased interest in academic integrity.

As of 2010, Fang’s website had listed over 900 instances of academic fraud, including fraud by presidents of universities and nationally known researchers. His crusade to expose fraud in China’s scientific and academic communities soon received widespread media coverage.

At that time, there was no official body or procedure for handling complaints or examining allegations of fraud in China, and Fang started the website as an unofficial platform to expose the problem.

In 2006, a series of accusations and counter-accusations on Fang’s website led to significant media attention, criticism of the investigations conducted by Chinese universities and greater involvement by such government authorities as the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Natural Science Foundation of China in investigating allegations.

Thanks to intense media attention, in 2012 Fang was named one of the two inaugural winners of the John Maddox Prize, given by Nature and the Kohn Foundation, which said: “[H]e has opened a forum for criticism and debate in a community that is otherwise devoid of it”. Indeed, Fang fights his crusade with the full involvement of the media.

Critical coverage

Despite continuing state control, the Chinese media increasingly plays the role of watchdog and assists in holding the higher education sector accountable.

There are various reasons for this interest. One is the tremendous social attention and value attached to higher education. It is simply too important. The other is the fact that, although public universities and colleges in China always suffered from bureaucracy, they are not as authoritarian as government departments and are unlikely to block the media from exposing their problems, mistakes and failures.

Nevertheless, media coverage of higher education is still trammelled to some extent, for instance by a consumerist approach that uses criticism as a strategy to increase sales. Often such critical coverage appears to be shallow and superficial, even if the problems are real, and turns out to be a less constructive way of addressing issues. Most recently, some university leaders complained about the media’s tendency to demonise universities.

Another example is that media coverage of issues and problems is mostly limited to the higher education sector, as if the problems do not relate to the rest of society.

In contrast, when covering the issues and constraints facing Chinese higher education, international media – for instance The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, University World News and Inside Higher Education – often embed them in the socioeconomic and political contexts in which the universities and colleges operate, stressing that only when higher education genuinely plays a leading role in China’s social development will it break through its institutionalised constraints and transform itself.

* Qiang Zha is an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University. His research interests include Chinese and East Asian higher education, international academic relations, global brain circulation, internationalisation of higher education, globalisation and education, differentiation and diversity in higher education, knowledge transfer and commercialisation, and international migration and development. His most recent books include the co-authored Portraits of 21st Century Chinese Universities: In the move to mass higher education (with Ruth Hayhoe et al. 2011), and two edited volumes Education and Global Cultural Dialogue (with Karen Mundy 2012) and Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives (2013). In 2012-13, Qiang Zha is also a Wei Lun Scholar at Tsinghua University.

* Xiaoyang Wang is an associate professor and director of the Higher Educational Research Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He was a visiting scholar to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004. From 2005-09, he was appointed as a second secretary in the education office at the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC.