Universities tighten up on graduation requirements

Universities in China are tightening up on graduation requirements in a bid to improve standards as a larger proportion of young people are in higher education than in the past and employers regularly complain that education standards among younger graduates appear to be dropping.

China’s gross enrolment ratio for higher education last year reached almost 43%, according to official statistics, compared to just over 20% a decade ago. In particular, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) saw a big jump between 2013 and 2014 – the cohort which is graduating this year – from 30% to almost 40%.

The overall figures mask wide variations across the country, from less than 20% GER in some Western provinces to around 70% GER on the more prosperous Eastern seaboard, and even higher in cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

But now some universities are refusing to let students graduate if they do not fulfil degree requirements. In mid-October 18 students at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province who did not have enough credits to graduate with a four-year bachelor degree only received certificates for a less prestigious three-year polytechnic programme, described as an ‘associate degree’.

The university said it was part of its pilot policy notified last year to guarantee the quality of its degree programmes.

However, it denied it was a draconian measure. "The system offers a certain degree of flexibility in the current education model. Students who don't get enough credits will be given another opportunity to continue their studies, rather than simply drop out of school," the university said in an online statement.

According to the university’s own statistics, of more than 30,000 undergraduate students in the 2017-18 academic year, 210 received ‘yellow card’ warnings due to low credits, and 34 did not meet the minimum requirements and received ‘red card’ warnings over the course of the year.

Debate about ‘downgrading’ policy

The university’s downgrading policy has attracted a great deal of debate and social media attention in China as Huazhong is one of 39 highly-ranked institutions under China’s so-called 985 project for world-class universities which provides substantial extra funding for universities to internationalise and excel in research in particular areas.

It is necessary for universities to weed out or postpone the graduation of unqualified students, Wu Yan, director of the Ministry of Education's department of higher education, said in an interview last week with the local Wuhan Evening News.

"We cannot have 'happy' universities where students just play computer games, have relationships or idle away the time," he was quoted as saying.

The country should increase academic pressure on college students to increase the quality of university education, since they are the backbone of the country's talents, he added.

While Huazhong has attracted huge attention, it is not alone. Among the 4,119 graduates in Yunnan University this year, 220 delayed graduation because they did not have enough credits. Six were expelled from the university, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Hunan Polytechnic of Environment and Biology expelled 22 students for failing to get high enough scores. Forty other students were asked to repeat their senior year.

This year some 83 students failed to graduate from North Sichuan Medical College, the highest number in that institution’s 67-year history, according to reports.

New government policies

Although degree downgrading, expulsions and failure to complete are still uncommon – China’s dropout rate of around 5% at its top universities is among the lowest in the world – the downgrading examples being publicised come swiftly in the wake of a Ministry of Education announcement in late August of new regulations for universities to tighten up on graduation requirements.

These include scrapping the widespread practice of allowing failing students to sit ‘make up’ exams. These second-chance exams are often perceived by students to be easier than the main exams during the undergraduate course.

That announcement was followed in early October by new ministry guidelines that student evaluations must be closely linked to regular ‘brief tests’ and less-frequent major exams. Faculty assessments of students’ ‘learning process’ – a broad concept that includes conduct in and outside the classroom – must also be taken into consideration, according to the ministry.

Zeng Tianshan, deputy dean of the education ministry-funded National Institute of Education Sciences, told the economic news portal Caixin that Chinese universities are shifting from being difficult to enter and easy to graduate from, to being difficult to enter and difficult to graduate from.

This is a reference to the ferociously competitive make-or-break gaokao university entrance examination. Performance in the exam – for which high school students often spend two to three years preparing – determines whether they can be admitted to top tier universities which have very high cut-off scores.

At some top tier universities students typically slacken off, with some university teachers complaining that many students simply do the minimum during the entire four-year degree course.