Mergers U-turn after protests at ‘inferior’ qualification

Four provinces in China – Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong and Jiangxi – have said they would suspend plans to merge some independent colleges and vocational institutes, after large-scale, often violent student protests broke out this week on several college campuses in and around Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province.

Netizens noted that campus protests are rare in China but for the authorities to cave in to student demands is even rarer.

Videos went viral on the internet in China showing riot police violently suppressing students with batons at about five independent colleges including at Nanjing Normal University’s Zhongbei College in Jiangsu province on Monday 7 June, where students held the college principal hostage over fears their qualifications would be downgraded. Hundreds of students were involved.

Students said they would not be able to sit postgraduate entrance exams and would be at a disadvantage if they wanted to apply for government jobs with the new qualification. The changes could affect their employment prospects generally, they said.

Some said they paid high fees but by the time they graduate their qualifications will be worth a lot less.

Police stormed the campus using pepper spray and forcibly shoved or dragged people into a crowded conference room, according to circulating videos.

Students had been informed that day that their independent undergraduate college would be merged with Jiangsu Vocational Institute of Commerce, downgrading their status and the qualifications delivered.

Students at Zhongbei College said their protest had been peaceful, but then the police had been sent in.

According to reports, students were also injured in a clash between students at Nantong University’s Xinglin College in Jiangsu on Monday, Nanjing Normal University’s North China College in Zhenjiang city and Danyang Normal University’s North College in the same city that night after riot police were dispatched to the campuses.

Videos were also circulating of Shandong University of Finance and Economics’ Dongfang College the same night. Students contacted by University World News said internet network speeds had been slowed down in Zhenjiang city, which students believed was to stop videos being posted on the internet.

According to unconfirmed reports, a large number of students were arrested at the various campuses.

Merger proposed

In May 2020, to improve the much-criticised quality of many independent colleges the ministry announced a new restructuring plan which would mean the merger of independent colleges with vocational institutions and would instead offer ‘professional bachelors’ degrees rather than bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degrees.

The Jiangsu Education Department in March suggested the merger of Zhongbei College with the vocational college to create a new Nanjing Vocational and Technological University of Commerce, and asked people to submit their views by 18 June.

Students at other colleges said they had not been properly consulted and that teachers had not informed them of the proposed merger with institutions that they regard as inferior before imposing the decision in a joint statement by several colleges at the weekend.

The proposed reforms were also to extend to Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Hanlin College and Nanjing Normal University’s Taizhou College.

The Jiangsu Education Department said the decision communicated to students was to comply with a Ministry of Education directive to transform independent colleges, usually set up by public universities, social organisations or philanthropic donors, into vocational schools.

Independent colleges are often affiliated with top public universities but have separate admissions processes and do not receive public funds. They often have higher tuition fees but lower admission scores compared to the parent universities and have often been criticised for being a cash cow for the parent universities whose name attracts the students.

Nanjing Normal University, for example is a prestigious public university with several independent colleges. Some universities have sold their independent colleges to private colleges in recent years after the Ministry of Education required them to be operated independently from the parent university.

Police in Zhenjiang said in a statement on Tuesday that students at Zhongbei College had gathered from Sunday to protest against the college’s decision to merge with a vocational institute. They said the students had “illegally detained” the dean of the college, named by others as Chang Qing, “who came to the students to explain the situation”, according to police.

Students “shouted verbal abuse and blocked law enforcement” and refused to let him leave even after authorities announced a suspension of the merger plans, the police statement added.

“To uphold campus order... public security organs took necessary measures in accordance with the law to remove the trapped person, and [the injured] were immediately sent to hospital for treatment.”

The Jiangsu Department of Education released an official message on Monday saying that “after special consideration the merger and transfer of independent and vocational colleges are suspended”.

But students told official media that they wanted a complete termination of the plan not a temporary suspension of the merger.