An emerging private (minban) sector largely serves the bottom of the system. Quality is poor—and the education is mainly vocational—in fields such as information technology and business studies. Whereas some of the better private institutions produce competent midlevel workers, many of the graduates lack usable skills for China's development in the global knowledge economy. A few such institutions offer undergraduate degree programs. Students who are least able to afford high tuitions are awarded degrees of questionable value or pay a relative fortune for low-quality and low-prestige vocational preparation.
The core of China's quality problem involves the system's professors. Nationally, one third of academic staffers hold only a bachelor's degree (the proportion reaches 60 percent in the new private sector), which indicates that the skill level of many of the faculty members is rather low. The number of academic staffers with a doctorate, in both public and private institutions, has increased recently but still constitutes only 14 percent of professors, compared with 70 percent of faculty at reputable Chinese institutions who have earned a doctorate. Academic salaries are low, with the exception of a small percentage of highly productive academics at top universities. Chinese academics do not typically earn enough to support a middle-class lifestyle and must moonlight. In a recent study of academic salaries in 28 countries that included Brazil, Russia and India, China scored among the lowest when it was measured by purchasing-power parity.
This environment is not good enough to sustain a world-class academic culture. Effective universities need a commitment to basic research that is not closely linked to monetary gain. They must encourage interdisciplinary work, accommodate shared governance and establish clearly understood norms. Professors need academic freedom, access to all sources of information and analysis, and the latitude to publish their work. The university in all its functions must be both meritocratic and reasonably transparent, which means that personal, political and institutional connections must not influence decisions regarding personnel, research or other academic matters.
These things are generally taken for granted in the developed world, but in Chinese universities they remain a challenge. Even the prestigious universities worry that their curricula and teaching methods are outdated and inappropriate for the modern world and encourage rote learning at the expense of creativity and critical thinking. The Chinese government, which has centralized administrative power over academic resources and scholarships, may restrict the growth of young scholars and disrupt the fairness of competition for research excellence. The academic environment is also known to be rife with plagiarism, cheating on examinations and other elements of corruption. There is considerable use of guanxi (personal connections and networks) as well. Faculty culture is often hierarchical and bureaucratic.
Many of the leading universities are considering an innovative liberal arts–oriented undergraduate curriculum and are beginning to focus on teaching methods that encourage students to be more active. They are also increasingly hiring young academics with Ph.D.'s from the best overseas universities and introducing more rigorous internal evaluation. Yet changing the academic culture in the bottom 80 percent or more of the academic system is going to be especially difficult. Those institutions remain quite traditional and bureaucratic. Poor practices tend to be ingrained in the system and difficult to change. So far a combination of resources and a will to reform, at least at the top of the academic system, has served China well. Cultural change may come eventually, but it will come slowly.
This article was originally published with the title Can China Keep Rising?.