Critics hope for higher education planning reform

Source:Xinhua-Global Times Published: 2014-11-27 20:13:01

Bicycles chained up on the campus of Peking University Photo: CFP

The two most famous numbers in Chinese academia are 985 and 211.

But these aren't numbers related to mathematics, these numbers refer to two education projects set up on the Chinese mainland. Launched in 1995 and 1998 respectively, Project 985 and Project 211 involve more than 100 universities across China, including several of the country's most prestigious universities such as Tsinghua University (THU) and Peking University (PKU).

Designed to improve the quality of higher education in China, the two national projects have been criticized, with observers claiming the privileges they hand out cause discrimination and a disparity in funding.

Although the Ministry of Education (MOE) has quashed recent rumors that Project 211 and Project 985 are going to annulled, the debate over their impact on China's higher education sector still goes on.

World-class universities

Today, China has over 118 higher education institutions that are part of Project 211 and 39 involved with Project 985, and several institutions are part of both projects.

Project 985 was first announced by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin at an event held to celebrate Peking University's 100th anniversary on May 4, 1998, with the stated aim of promoting the development and reputation of China's higher education by creating world-class universities.

Project 211 was started by the MOE, and its goal is to raise the standards of research conducted at certain universities.

Universities involved in these two projects train 80 percent of China's doctoral students, over 30 percent of graduate students and half of overseas students that come to the country. They offer 85 percent of the courses that are part of China's development goals and are taught to a certain level, run 96 percent of the country's key labs and receive 70 percent of public scientific research funds.

Graduating from one of these universities is a huge boon to students' future employment prospects.

Although the MOE has banned employers from discriminating against students that graduate from universities that are not members of the two projects, many young job-seekers face something of a glass ceiling.

In 2012, a bank in Shenzhen advertised for a job and said that it would only accept applicants who graduated from universities that are members of the two projects. In retaliation, Zhang Bigong, president of Shenzhen University, which is not part of either project, called on students' parents to withdraw their money from the bank to protest against this discrimination.

Funding disparity

Universities of the projects are entitled to a far greater amount of state funding that colleges that are excluded from the projects.

According to figures released by the MOE, 985 and 211 universities received more than 60 percent of their research funds from the government while non-participating colleges receive less than 40 percent, forcing them to rely much more on private donors.

For example, THU received 3.93 billion yuan ($641.1 million) of research funding in 2013, 70 percent of which came from the government, according to the MOE figures. In comparison, the Southwest Petroleum University, the university that receives the most funding out of those schools that do not participate in either project, only received 460 million yuan.

There is also a disparity in funding among the different universities under the two projects. "Thirty years of financial support given to Guizhou University still falls short of the money allocated to THU and PKU in one year," said Zheng Qiang, president of Guizhou University, a university that participates in Project 211 but is not included in Project 985.

Chu Zhaohui, a research fellow with the National Institute of Education Sciences, said some universities that are enlisted in these projects do not make good use of the research funds they receive and that some even misappropriate research money.

China spent 1 trillion yuan, or about 1.97 percent of its total GDP, on research and development in 2012, a figure which grew to 2 percent in 2013. However, much of that money was misused, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST).

A statement of MST issued earlier in November said that Song Maoqiang, a professor at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and Chen Yingxu, a professor at Zhejiang University, were sentenced to 10 and a half years and 10 years imprisonment respectively. The two were found to have embezzled over 25 million yuan of state funds through fake research projects, along with three other professors from renowned universities.

At a national seminar held on November 21, Deputy Education Minister Du Yubo announced that in future the distribution of key national research programs to universities will become more equal, to help reduce the privilege that universities that are part of the two projects hold, according to news portal The Paper.

Chu suggested establishing an independent third-party audit system to monitor the use of research funds in Chinese universities.

"Whether such projects are abolished or not, China's higher education authorities need to reform their research distribution system," said Chu.

Abolish or reform

"Apart from the discrimination related to graduate employment and research funding [the two projects cause], faculty members at universities of the two projects can gain a higher professional ranking and title much faster," He Qinhua, president of the East China University of Political Science and Law, said in an interview with news portal

Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute and professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, says such projects must be abolished eventually because they are inefficient. "None of the world's top universities are planned. Instead, they became great through competition," said Xiong.

If their abolishment is not likely, two projects must be reformed to make them more open to other institutions that wish to participate, according to He.

"There are currently no mechanisms for rewards or punishment. A university can never be 'good enough' to join the projects. There should be evaluation in fields such as scientific achievement, student performance and social responsibility," He said.

Newspaper headline: Closing the funding gap

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