Drive to improve quality and breadth of undergraduate HE

After years of concentrating on research to drive Chinese universities up global university rankings, China’s education ministry has set out new rules to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching, with a major national and provincial push to promote curriculum reform and evaluation, eliminate poor-performing courses and fire academics who have not taught for three years.

The drive to improve university teaching was outlined in ministry documents issued last month, one on ‘Reform of Undergraduate Education and Teaching and Improving the Quality of Talent Cultivations’, and the other a recently unveiled ‘double ten thousand’ plan to list 10,000 “first class undergraduate courses” at national level and 10,000 courses at provincial level.

The ‘double ten thousand’ plan covers online, blended and face to face courses – around half of the national level top courses will be online or blended courses. The best and most innovative will receive special funding and will be held up as a model for other universities in China to follow. Model courses in Chinese politics and ideology such as Xi Jinping Thought will be included in the top 10,000.

According to the ministry, among the criteria for elite status are that courses challenge students, promote advanced thinking and solving of complex problems, emphasise both breadth and depth, and foster in students “bold questioning” and the ability to be innovative.

Top courses must emerge within the next three years, which many experts believe is a very short timetable for root and branch curriculum reform and the radical change in university teaching culture proposed by the first document.

“There is fairly widespread recognition among people within China’s own education bureaucracy and also in the universities that there is a lot of bad teaching going on,” says Carl Minzner, professor of law at Fordham University in New York, and an expert on Chinese law and governance.

Change of focus

With China’s slowing economic growth and a low birth rate feeding into higher education, “the era of ever-expanding money to throw at higher education is coming to an end”, Minzner says, and the government is also “grappling with how to produce students who contribute usefully to the economy. Unemployment and underemployment among college graduates is a serious problem in China.”

“The core of the [ministry] document is that they are not entirely happy about the student learning experience because too much focus is still on the discipline,” says Joshua Ka-ho Mok, vice-president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, and a professor of comparative policy. “Universities in China are very standardised and discipline-oriented, focusing on technical knowledge.

“But now the Chinese government is thinking seriously about preparing graduates for uncertain economic developments in future, so they are trying to reform the curriculum,” Mok says.

China is experiencing severe pressure on its export-led manufacturing economy, in part from the ongoing US-China trade war – sometimes referred to as a new Cold War – as well as a need to move into high technology and services to fuel economic growth. Technological change is also driving the need for softer and interdisciplinary skills.

There is a strong view that the pendulum has swung too far towards promoting university research to the detriment of teaching and vocational courses. “The thinking is that with fewer resources, they need to be used more effectively, and there is also the thinking that there may be too many researchers not actually teaching classes,” Minzner says.

“For the past two decades or so the Chinese government poured resources into research outcomes, to help lift universities’ ranking positions, and they tried to buy in talents, especially Chinese expatriates from Western countries, to produce most of the research performance and outcomes very quickly,” says Qiang Zha, associate professor of education at York University in Canada.

“But because of this so-called ‘new Cold War’ with Western countries, that does not work. They have to start cultivating domestic talents,” he says, referring to the ongoing US-China trade war and Western suspicions of China’s technology ambitions.

“It’s a big shift. China knows there’s no shortcut to developing their own talents and that they have to start from the beginning to develop a new generation of innovative minds,” Qiang says.

Since the late 1990s, under China’s 211 and 985 and ‘double world-class’ projects, the government provided generous funding to top universities for research, infrastructure and facilities. The more recent ‘double world-class’ project aimed to create some 400 world-class disciplines across 95 universities.

Qiang sees the current undergraduate quality drive as “a new priority in the ‘double world-class’ initiative, but one which will take more time, effort and dedication”.

For top courses to emerge within three years, “the timeline is very tight,” says Qiang, adding that many university teachers in China doubt that this will work as planned. With the current focus on research outcomes which are also linked to job promotions, “they are reluctant to invest their time to transform their teaching practice,” he says.

But there is also a big stick. Professors and associate professors who don’t teach undergraduates for three years will be “removed from the system”, according to the ministry. “It is a hard-line approach,” agrees Qiang, “but this kind of hard line can work in the Chinese context.”

Quality hike

The two major documents on undergraduate education will lead to a “quality revolution” in higher education, focusing on teaching innovation, better courses and more engaged and hardworking students, the ministry says.

“Students should have to jump in order to reach [their goals],” the ministry said. “[The plan] will make the curriculum more challenging … improve the quality of courses, make teachers stronger, students busier, supervision stricter, results more concrete, and create a world-class undergraduate education system with Chinese characteristics.”

In particular, universities will increase the time students spend learning, increase the proportion of self-study time, and guide students to read more.

The ministry guidelines state that the level of difficulty of Chinese bachelor degree programmes must be increased. Under the guidelines, multiple second chances for retaking failed exams while at university and so-called ‘pecking courses’ that make for easy credits would be axed.

Undergraduate degrees are notorious for having loose graduation requirements following an arduous ‘gaokao’ and many students slacken off. Many students take easy courses to get an easy mark, says Qiang. “Students will have to change their mindset as well.”

The ministry released separate guidelines last year on tightening graduation requirements, concerned that too many students were getting degrees without any accompanying rigour.

Student engagement

Recent research, including surveys and focus groups, for example at Tsinghua University in Beijing – one of the country’s top-ranked universities – shows that students do not enjoy a high level of learning experience, says Lingnan University’s Mok.

“Chinese universities have definitely improved but not the student experience,” notes Mok. The ministry’s documents are the result of a major national conference on education in recent weeks. “The [Communist] Party is now taking the issue of the undergraduate education experience very seriously.”

This includes learning about quality assessment, curriculum reform and broadening education – including liberal arts-type programmes – from the West.

Local and provincial education authorities must support universities to improve the course credit system and expand students’ autonomy and choice of courses, according to the documents. The ministry wants more individual teacher guidance for students and more personalised training programmes and academic career plans for students.

In particular, the ministry wants university teachers to “break the silence” in the classroom to make them more interactive, according to the documents. This may be difficult for university teachers steeped in the much drier lecture-oriented style of teaching, experts say.

Double 10,000

The ‘double 10,000’ plan is a key element of the undergraduate reforms. According to the ministry, the course selection for that accolade will incorporate teaching that reflects state of the art academic research and technological development, advanced “interaction”, and that “actively guides students to conduct enquiry and individualised learning”.

Those courses will be designed by “high-level talent” such as scholars of Chinese academies of sciences and engineering, recipients of the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars and fellows of the Changjiang Scholars Program, which recognises the country’s top professors.

They will also draw on experts from the ‘Thousand Talents Program’, a government project to lure scientific talent from foreign countries to work in China, and a similarly named ‘Ten Thousand Talents Program’ for younger researchers.

The new courses, to be evaluated annually by the ministry, must incorporate development of “moral character” as well as “cutting-edge technological development”, according to the guidelines.

The ministry will organise experts to examine recommended courses before classifying them as top examples. Once confirmed as state-level top courses, they will be tracked in their application, teaching results and other criteria, and will be further developed for five years, with their progress uploaded to specified websites and updated regularly, to serve as a model for other universities.

The title will be withdrawn once an identified course is not further updated and improved, or has problems concerning its content or teaching staff, the guidelines say.

But there is also a downside. University majors that cannot adapt to such changes will be phased out, according to the guidelines. The ministry periodically releases lists of subjects linked to low employment prospects for graduates and curtails the number of new courses in those disciplines. It has also culled large numbers of joint Sino-foreign courses partly on quality grounds, but this is the first time it is setting a base level for all courses.

Political overlay

Top courses can exist in colleges, vocational institutions as well as universities. Academics see a huge push to be seen to be conforming to some of the main criteria.

“Because there is a lot of money associated with this project, different departments or universities will be competing to get the label. There will be a whole ecosystem of how to get to those targets,” says Fordham University’s Minzner. “This is also taking place in the middle of a major political rectification of higher education in China, separate from these particular goals but directed at higher education in general.

“It’s entirely possible that in the process of carrying out the general policy and evaluating who is an effective teacher, there’s going to be a political overlay.”

The ministries’ documents are infused with references to strengthening ideological education, putting this as the first priority for universities to improve undergraduate education. “They want to strengthen Party control over the universities and the clear message is: don’t forget that Party ideology is a core component of what it means to be a student in China,” Minzner says.

“It’s a fundamental tension – how do you get somebody to be creatively engaging with ideas in some domains and then other times you want them to be holding tightly to prescribed orthodoxy. That’s one of the difficult core problems facing Chinese higher education today,” says Minzner, who expresses scepticism that it will work and lead to real improvements in higher education quality.