20111124-Students_returning_from_military_training Dalian.JPG
returning from military training

Chinese universities have poor facilities: dormitory rooms that sleep eight, teaching materials bound by hand on reproduced on mimeograph machines, libraries with out-of-date books, overcrowded classrooms, professors earning less than cab drivers and textbooks that tow the party line. Many of China's universities were damaged and weakened during the Cultural Revolution.

Critics say the quality of teaching has suffered, in recent years, as universities have become more politicized and Communist Party officials have begun to view a senior academic position as a ticket to career success. Higher education is tightly bound by ideological and political restraints. Professor Zhang Weiying of Peking University (known as “Beida”) told China Beat, “Beida can’t diversify the curriculum without autonomy or academic freedom. But the problem runs deeper than that. Many of the faculty don’t encourage creativity in their students — the aim is rather to get the right answer (the only one). New ideas are not encouraged. If you go through this system, professor Zhang continued, you will become narrowminded.” [Source: Alec Ash, China Beat, July 13, 2010]

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, undergraduate enrollment increased by 30 percent. This growth was aimed at reviving China’s economy. But the costs for students today are overcrowded classrooms and fewer resources, and debt. Students are also driven to rack up certificates because their education is failing to prepare them for a career. [Source: Charlene Zheyan, Ministry of Tofu, October 15, 2013]

Now, universities face the challenge from the declining birth rate, which will lead to smaller pools of applicants. According to official data, there were 28 million newborns in 1991 in China. The figure dropped by half to 14 million in 1999. The number of newborns dropped by 320,000, or nearly 2 per cent, year on year in 2015, the National Bureau of Statistics announced. The government began to ease the one-child policy in 2014 and now allows all couples to have a second child, in a bid to offset the greying of society and reverse a long-term trend towards lower population growth. [Source: He Huifeng, South China Morning Post, May 15, 2016]

Problems with the Chinese University System

In his 2011 book, “Is Chinese Education Sick?”, Zhang Ming, a professor of international politics at People’s University in Beijing, condemns the bureaucratization of Chinese universities. Austin L. Dean wrote in theLos Angeles Review of Books, Interestingly, to make his attack, Zhang leans on the language of Chinese history and the yamen, the name of a local administrative office in imperial China. The lowest level of the administrative hierarchy, yamens were also centers of corruption as different government clerks assisted in carrying out the work of the local magistrate. For Zhang Ming, Chinese universities today don’t resemble institutions of higher learning as people in other countries know them so much as they do yamens. They are not centers of learning but centers of administrators and bureaucrats, who implement a system of rules, regulations, measurements, and assessments. Corruption is everywhere. [Source: Austin L. Dean, Los Angeles Review of Books, February 25, 2015]

“Zhang laments that most people in Chinese universities—famous professors and young teachers, graduate students—work within this system of regulations and rules because the rewards are great, as is the case with well-established profs, or because they must, as is the case with those just starting their academic careers. The result is that the system produces research that is not meaningful and teachers who are too narrow in their interests and areas of expertise. In a remarkable chapter titled “University Professors Who have No Culture,” no one escapes Zhang’s pen: If a professor in the natural sciences can write a decent Chinese sentence, it is quite an achievement. Humanities and Social Science professors are even worse; they don’t know anything outside of their own small areas of research and don’t have the innate intelligence of professors in the natural sciences. These criticisms are familiar enough and not limited to China.

“Zhang is also quite critical of the push for expanding the number of Chinese universities and the obsession with making Chinese universities “first-rate” (yiliu) in global rankings; it is a hollow scheme that increases the power of administrators and lacks real meaning. The schools that certain bureaucrats want to rank highly will always rank highly, no matter what the objective criteria might be. In a similar vein, the expansion of Chinese universities—what he calls a Great Leap Forward (da yuejin), a loaded term given its meaning in Chinese history — further increases the power of bureaucrats and administrators as the campaign leaders dangle increased resources for hitting certain targets.

“It was not always thus. In the midst of Zhang’s criticisms and laments is nostalgia for an earlier era. Surprisingly, he argues that in the initial years of Reform and Opening, the 1980s, Chinese universities were not as much like yamens and the power of administrators was not as great. At that time, the country did not have as many resources, so there could not be the same goal of securing more funds from the government for hitting certain academic targets. Looking back even earlier to the 1930s and 1940s, Zhang points out that Chinese universities produced a stable of “master teachers,” dashi, for whom today’s university professors are no match in terms of knowledge, ability, and seriousness of purpose. How can it be, he wonders, that China now has so many more material resources but continually fails to produce equivalent “master teachers”? The answer, he thinks, is surely that the government is too involved. When that is the case, ninety percent of universities will be run poorly.

Bureaucratism Hold Back Chinese University Education

David Ho wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Why haven’t Chinese universities produced more world-class scholars and innovators? My first-hand experience in China points to three adverse factors: outmoded teaching methods, autocratic academic governance, and administrative “bureaucratism”. These factors, rather than a lack of money, are the stumbling blocks that have frustrated attempts to ensure Chinese universities are among the best in the world. [Source: David Ho South China Morning Post, October 14, 2014]

“Academics are supposed to be served by administrators. In mainland China, however, the administrative bureaucratic structure gets in the way of academic excellence. In the university where I taught, administrators behave like overlords vis-à-vis heads of academic departments, who tend to function, sadly, more like bureaucrats than academics. In one department, the construction of a research laboratory was held up for well over a year because of bureaucratic bungling, to the chagrin of researchers eager to get on with their work. The department head told me he had to “beg” (his word) the bureaucratic overlords to get things done.

“Among the symptoms of “bureaucratism” are excessive compartmentalisation (for example, each bureaucrat is responsible only for a narrowly defined task, and each task is to be performed only by designated bureaucrats), uneven workload distribution, inadequate communication between or within administrative units, and inadequate or no follow-up. Bureaucratism lays waste to the potential for academic excellence by eating into precious time academics need to work. Wasting weeks just to get a library card, a phone for my office, and a bank account set up (as instructed by the administration) to get paid are just a few of the numerous examples of wastage I encountered.

Regional Inequality in Chinese University Admissions

Big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are home to China’s best universities, such as Peking and Tsinghua, which often enroll more students with Beijing and Shanghai permanent residency than those from other provinces. Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times: “Henan Province in central China is mostly a flat expanse of fields, towns and villages, whose 100 million or so people are sometimes slurred by others as bumpkins. Adding to the insult, the Chinese government has long skewed opportunities away from Henan in an area of life that matters intensely to many in China: getting their children into universities.[Source: Chris Buckley, Sinosphere, New York Times, March 10, 2015]

“China’s system of university recruitment is just one way in which inequity and political favoritism undercut the government’s vows to deliver equal treatment to all citizens. But educational inequality especially riles families who see education, especially a place in a prestigious university, as an escape from a hard, uncertain life for their children. Under China’s intensely competitive and stressful university entrance exams, or “gaokao,” each province and the major cities, such as Beijing, devise and score their own. Students indicate the universities and colleges they want to apply to, and their test scores are used to allocate spots, with the central authorities setting quotas indicating how many applicants schools should admit from each area. The political calculus of distributing quotas across provinces and cities works against students from big provinces, such as Henan, which also have large populations of farmers.

“The central government has tended to allot a larger proportion of university positions to children from big cities, where keeping the population contented is seen as politically more important. Most of the best universities are also in Shanghai and Beijing, and they have been happy to go along with giving more slots to local students.

“All that irks people from Henan and similar regions, especially because China’s household registration system means that people cannot freely move from one area to another for better schooling. “My daughter went to nursing college, and my son is going to a vocational college,” said Rong Tiekui, a villager from Sui County in Henan, in a telephone interview. “But they would have had a better chance if there was equal educational opportunity. Everyone knows that Henan suffers from geographic discrimination.”

“According to Mr. Li, the businessman, Peking University, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, allocated 85 spots in 2013 for the 758,000 students from Henan who took the university entrance exam, making for a recruitment rate of 0.01 percent. The 73,000 students from Beijing were allotted 226 positions, a recruitment rate of 0.31 percent. According to official statistics, in 2014, 24.8 percent of the students applying from Beijing were accepted to bachelor’s degree programs in the most prestigious tier of universities. For Henan, the figure was 6.9 percent. For Sichuan Province in the southwest, it was 5.5 percent.

“The variation in university admission rates cannot be attributed solely to the different strengths of students, said Terry Crawford, the chief executive of InitialView, a company that performs assessment interviews of Chinese students applying to American and British universities. In emailed comments, he recalled interviewing students from Zhengzhou, in Henan Province, in 2012, when he first started the interview business. “We realized soon after — I think due to a conversation with a parent — that one of the reasons many top students in Henan were forgoing the gaokao was that they did not like their odds of getting into a top university in China,” he said. “This was due to the incredibly high gaokao score they would need in order to be competitive in their province. However, they had realized that they were competitive enough to get into a good college in the U.S.”

Pushback Against Regional Inequality in Chinese University Admissions

Grievances about regional inequality in Chinese university admissions were raised at the 2015 full gathering of the National People’s Congress, the Communist Party-controlled legislature. Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times: ““People in Henan have long complained that education funds and national quotas for places in universities have been tilted away from them and other big, crowded rural provinces, in favor of the wealthier, more privileged parts of the country, especially Beijing and Shanghai. At a gathering open to journalists on Sunday, delegates to the congress from Henan denounced educational inequality, according to reports from the session. One delegate bowed before reporters to demand fair treatment. [Source: Chris Buckley, Sinosphere, New York Times, March 10, 2015]

“In recent years, the Ministry of Education has given Henan a lot of support and care and, on behalf of 100 million Henan people, I thank you,” said the delegate, Li Guangyu, a businessman who runs an education investment company, according to the main evening newspaper of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. “I also sincerely ask that you continue supporting and helping Henan, and let more kids from Henan win a fair chance for an education.”

“Other representatives from Henan also spoke up, and the provincial news media has taken up their cause. “The vicious circle persists that it’s better to be born in the city than the countryside, and it’s better to be born in Beijing than Henan,” said a commentary in The Dahe News, a popular newspaper in Henan.

“President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang have promised to provide more university opportunities to children from poorer areas, especially the countryside, and there has been a slight easing of inequities. But many officials, educators and families from the bigger, poorer provinces say the improvements have been too few and too slow.

“For eight years now, Lou Yuangong, the president of Henan University, has formally raised the issue during China’s annual legislative gathering as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body that meets at the same time as the National People’s Congress. “Even now at this moment, students from Henan don’t enjoy equal treatment,” Mr. Lou said, according to The Dahe News. “But I’ll keep on calling for it.”

Parents Protest Chinese University Admission Quotas

To rectify the problem of regional favoritism in Chinese universities the Ministry of Education and the National Development and Reform Commission jointly announced a plan in May 2016 to adjust enrollment quotas in an attempt to make admission to top universities more equitable, and reduce the pressure students faced from the college admission test. The central authorities required universities in 14 developed provinces such as Hubei and Jiangsu, and big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, to admit a total of 210,000 students from poorer inland provinces — like Henan, Guangxi, Guizhou and Gansu. Under the plan, universities in Hubei and Jiangsu must offer nearly 80,000 seats to outside students.

In 2016, thousands of parents staged demonstrations in the capital cities of Hubei and Jiangsu provinces, protesting over a change to university admission quotas which they say puts their children at a disadvantage. The South China Morning Post reported: Under the new scheme, leading universities across the country must admit a greater number of non-local students, which the parents fear will make it more difficult for their children to find a place at schools close to home. Demographers said the protests highlighted the unfairness of a college admission system that was based on household registration, or hukou. “As part of their protest, the parents gathered in front of provincial government buildings in Wuhan and Nanjing, and handed in petitions outlining their concerns at local education bureau offices. Some demonstrators clashed with police and were detained, video posted on mainland social media showed.[Source: He Huifeng, South China Morning Post, May 15, 2016]

“The parents were quoted by news website as saying that less than 10 per cent of local students in Jiangsu would be enrolled in local key universities while a student from Beijing had about a one in four chance. They said they felt angry and confused why universities located in the national capital were allowed to reserve more spots for those students with a Beijing hukou, while students in Hubei and in Jiangsu had to make more room for non-local students.

“The parents’ concerns were reasonable, according to Huang Wenzheng, a demographer and visiting scholar at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. The mainland’s college admissions system has long suffered from distortions caused by the residency control system. Students who want to attend a university away from where they live must often score significantly higher than locals on the general entrance exam, as most schools give preference to residents,

China's College Admissions Bias Against Women

There have been many examples of young Japanese men getting accepted at Chinese universities over young Chinese women even though the women had higher scores do on the all-important gaokao exam. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: When the precocious 18-year-old applied for early admission to Beijing's International Relations University in 2012, she knew it was a long shot even with her outstanding scores on the gaokao, which put her in the top 6 percent of graduating seniors in her province. She wasn't crushed when she was rejected by the school, but she was later, when she found out that male applicants with lower scores had been accepted. "It's not fair," said the young woman, who asked to be quoted only by her nickname, Kale (pronounced Kala), to avoid reprisal. "The girls and the boys work just as hard. We all study from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., under heavy pressure, knowing that if we don't succeed, our future is in limbo," said Kale, the daughter of a factory worker and the first in her immediate family to go to college. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2013]

“These days, Chinese girls have become victims of their own success. They are scoring higher and higher on standardized tests, prompting universities that want roughly equal gender enrollment to accept less qualified male students. It is tantamount to affirmative action for boys and it is making many young women furious. Guo Jianmei, founder and director of the Women's Legal Research and Service Center, established in 2006, said "Parents started contacting us saying that their daughters scored the same or better but that the boys were accepted instead," Guo said. "The difference is really significant, sometimes as much as 65 points," out of a maximum of 750.

“In China, national data on male and female test scores aren't made public, but in recent years universities have published scores of incoming students on their websites. That is how Kale, who scored 614 on her tests, discovered that boys had been accepted to the international finance program from her province with scores as low as 609, while 628 was the lowest score for girls who were accepted. Scouring the websites for evidence of discrimination, women's rights activists have discovered even higher gaps for foreign language and performing arts majors. Shanghai Language University admitted boys from Guangxi province with scores of 551; for girls, the lowest score was 616.

“The Education Ministry has told women's groups that they are not setting different standards for males and females but merely allowing the colleges to balance their gender ratios for specific programs. Educators cite particular fields in which men are preferred: Arabic languages, for example, because of the difficulty in sending women to work in some Arab countries.

“Women's advocates don't accept such explanations. "Whenever girls do something better than boys, they talk about 'boys in crisis.' I think that's exaggerated," said Zheng Churan, a recent graduate of Guangzhou's Sun Yat-Sen University who was one of the protest organizers.

Fake Diplomas and Bribery at Chinese Universities

Many Chinese students have gotten into U.S. universities with fake diplomas and exams and essay written by persons other than themselves. In some cases the fake diplomas are used get study visas so the person holding them can work. In Shenzhen or Beijing you can buy a bogus bachelor's degree, a fake student ID or phony transcripts for a Chinese or foreign university for less than $100. The Institute of Business Administration in the town of Toulon France was investigated for giving out hundreds of diplomas to Chinese students in return for bribes.

In June 2006, university students in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, smashed offices and set fires in a riot triggered by administrative changes that meant they would graduate with less prestigious degrees. The students, who attended Shengda Economics, Trade and Management College, had been promised degree from Zhenghous University, which Shengda is affiliated, and then told they would not get that degree. .

In December 2015, Cai Rongsheng, the former admissions director for Renmin University, confessed to bribery, calling into question ed the integrity of the university admission system as a whole. The New York Times reported: Mr. Cai, 50, acknowledged to a court in Nanjing, where he is on trial, that he had accepted more than $3.6 million in illegal payments between 2005 to 2013, in exchange for helping 44 students obtain spots at Renmin, a prestigious school in Beijing, or to allow students already there to change their majors, the website of the state-run China News Service reported. Among the wealthy students who benefited was the daughter of a Hong Kong businessman. [Source: Michael Forsythe, Sinosphere, New York Times, December 4, 2015]

20080311-Lujiang-Xiamen-University Nolls.jpg
Lujiang Xiamen University

Cheating in Chinese Universities

Academic cheating is a problem in China. In Beijing, you can pay people to take GMAT, SAT or TOEFL exams, write essays and forge transcripts. The cost of having a ringer sit in on a law or accountant exam is $120-240, for an English-language United States university entrance exam, $240-480. In March 2016, , Reuters detailed a vibrant industry in China has been exploiting the College Board’s practice of recycling SAT test forms by acquiring past exams and feeding their clients test questions in advance. [Source: Steve Stecklow, Reuters, June 10, 2016]

People who take test are called gunmen. One translator who charges $600 a test and called himself the "GMAT King" said he had more work than he could handle. He told U.S. News and World Report, "I saw so many requests for gunmen on school bulletin boards that I thought it made sense for me to use my TOEFL skills for some extra bucks." Organized cheating rings have been uncovered.

In a survey of 900 college students by the China Youth Daily released in 2008, 80 percent of those polled admitted to cheating on exams. Students routinely snatch essays off the Internet. Arthur Lu, an engineering student who last spring graduated from Tsinghua University, one of China’s top universities, told the New York Times it was common for students to swap test answers or plagiarize essays from one another. “Perhaps it’s a cultural difference but there is nothing bad or embarrassing about it,” said Lu, who is working on a master’s degree at Stanford University. “It’s not that students can’t do the work. They just see it as a way of saving time.”

Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “In July, Centenary College, a New Jersey institution with satellite branches in China and Taiwan, shuttered its business schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei after finding rampant cheating among students. Although school administrators declined to discuss the nature of the misconduct, it was serious enough to withhold degrees from each of the programs’ 400 students. Given a chance to receive their M.B.A.’s by taking another exam, all but two declined, school officials said.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 6, 2010]

Cheating has a long history. Scholars in the imperial era sometimes cheated on the civil service exams by writing down answers on a special shirt worn under their robes. There also many stories in Chinese literature of promising students who failed on the test because they were corrupted by women and alcohol.

Image Sources: 1) Louis Perrochon ; 2, 3) Ohio State University; 4) Nolls China website; 5) Bucklin archives; 6) Poco Pico blog ; Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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