How Fares Chinese Academia? – Questioning the ‘University Spirit’ 大学精神

One of the abiding mythologies of contemporary China relates to the unique qualities of what is dubbed the ‘University Spirit’ 大学精神. Supposedly a modern refraction of the ancient traditions of learning, reading, scholarship and public service, the University Spirit is somehow inculcated in generations of Chinese youth to create an ethos of public engagement, good citizenry and conscience. In reality, the Party-state dominated education system (from primary education upwards) ensures that what masquerades as meritocracy is in fact often a refraction of a veiled politics of competition, intellectual medacity and compliance. For some years, leading writers and thinkers have been warning of the decline of the University Spirit. Few mention that this has been a core concern of educators and students since the 1950s, when Party-dominated educational reforms undermined pedagogical independence and the 1954 attacks on bourgeois concepts of learning press-ganged universities into the service of the state.

In recent decades, however, intellectually independent educators and students thirsty for ideas, and careers, not determined by Party fiat have radically transformed China’s educational landscape. Nonetheless, concerns continue to be raised about the quality of the ideas and creativity of students produced by a system fixated more on performance statistics and numbers that with innovation. As Chinese universities climb up the global rankings ladder, dissenting voices within the People’s Republic have raised doubts about the quality of country’s tertiary education system, and the impact of its metrics-obsessed, statistically driven performance indicators (hardly a concern solely of Chinese educators!). Before entering university, students must pass the notoriously difficult gaokao 高考, short for ‘Higher-Education Entrance Exams’ or 高等教育入学考试 (although it now also covers 普通高校招生考试、自学考试和成人高考). But what happens to the successful candidates once they join the ever-increasing number of university students? And does the quality of their advanced education differ substantially from from earlier learning models. Or, as some ask, does it merely consist of cramming even more knowledge into their heads, without question or debate, so they can pass even more exams?

In late 2012, the prominent online site Consensus Network 共識網 published two parallel posts that explored the flaws of China’s academic institutions. Both underlined the rampant corruption of a system that is internationally vaunted and indeed seen in some countries as a model of success. The posts also raised more profound questions about the purpose of China’s higher education system and the core values of the country’s University Spirit. Their concerns are not unlike those raised by academics in Europe and the North America and Australia, concerns that question a university system dominated by business models and administrators more focused on ranking and crude professional outcomes than the mission of training independent, creative and inquisitive minds.

What’s Wrong with Our Universities?

By Ruo Yin 若隐, 25 October 2012

In his assessment of Chinese universities, Ruo Yin considers teachers, education and academic spirit in turn.

The teaching profession has traditionally enjoyed high respect in China – teachers being seen as the engineers of the soul, and invested with a lustrous aura. But the moral status of teachers has declined, and recent tales of corruption have tarnished their aura. In particular, many university professors now seem more concerned about hyping themselves in a quest for fame and power than patiently seeking knowledge in the dark. An associated problem is increased levels of dogmatism in the classroom, with teachers developing a personality cult around themselves, and restricting the space for debate and questioning as a way of asserting their authority.

The flaws of Chinese education start well before university, and encompass the whole system. For the most part high-school education consists of preparing students for the university entrance examination, cramming their heads with knowledge to that end. But university teachers follow suit trend and often treat students as empty vessels thirsty for unilaterally receiving dogmatic knowledge. One manifestation of this tendency is an ever increasing number of class hours - sometimes up to forty a week – leaving students with no time for independent thinking and study. Another feature of the educational landscape is the introduction of new evaluation models, with more multiple choice questions and a focus on numerical ranking, hollow results that do not reflect a student’s culture or independent perspective. Universities played a crucial role in the first half of the twentieth century as training grounds for the spirit of independence. The current decay of universities therefore signals a problem for the whole of Chinese society.

In the final part of this essay, Ruo Yin focuses more specifically on the loss of the University Spirit, critical investigation and the courage to hold non-conformist opinions. Some scholars have said that China suffered throughout the twentieth century from having no proper universities, but only ‘talent training’ institutions, places that taught people how to become bolts in the machine of state power. According to Ruo Yin, although the number of students has increased, this situation has not changed: universities are now factories that mass-produce knowledge. Worse yet is the fact that subject to the pressures of a ranking-obsessed administration, formerly separate universities were merged (like those of Hangzhou and Zhejiang); although better-ranked in China’s ‘league tables’, these new mega-universities do not train better students than their predecessors. And institutions with their own particular culture and tradition are disappearing.

In short, professors have become administrators and universities, like primary schools and secondary, have become a domestication machine training students for dogmatic obedience. The only hope for the future of universities is thorough-going reform, one aimed at allowing universities to reconnect with their true spiritual tradition, and to break of their subservience to the administration.

Original link: 若隐:我们的大学怎么了?

What’s Going Down with Academia?

The plea of an anonymous humanities PhD candidate, 26 October 2012

The ‘publish or perish’ system whereby academics are expected to submit a constant flow of papers has been often criticised internationally. The author of this post, an anonymous PhD candidate in history from Renmin University in Beijing, denounces the practice and its consequences in the Chinese context.

In order to increase their rankings, competing universities are now forcing Masters and PhD candidates to publish papers in recognised journals before they can graduate. The practice has developed over the last ten years, although academics have openly denounced it, and no official directive supports it.

These demands have given rise to systemic corruption. In liberal arts disciplines it takes years for a candidate to become a good researcher – many years are necessary for them to digest all the necessary knowledge and theory, not to mention that life experience itself often contributes to the quality of reflection. Therefore, a paper written by a graduate student is unlikely to hit the mark set by recognised journals. Yet because of the demands from universities, graduates have no choice but to publish. As a result, corruption has emerged as a prominent factor in academic life, with a mix of relationships, backdoor dealings, or direct bribery: in most cases, students have to pay to get published. The state gives some support to PhD candidates, but it is hardly sufficient to cover their living expenses; so families have to support them and find the 5000 or 6000 yuan necessary to secure publication in a suitable academic journal. This, in turn, leads to great pressure placed on poorer students, and raises serious questions of equity and access.

As the writer underlines in his essay: ‘these unreasonable, self-imposed provisions from universities no doubt stifle academic vitality, and are tantamount to the collective self-castration of Chinese graduate education.’ The practice leads to a dramatic loss of faith in the system, and deprives journals of their academic dignity. As a result, increasing numbers of candidates are abandoning the prospect of an academic life for other careers, which in turn deprives China’s universities of talented potential scholars, teachers and researchers.


This material is expanded on the basis of a translated précis by Julien Leyre, founder of the Marco Polo Project.