Every summer after the national university entrance exam, or gaokao, Chinese universities start their recruiting process. Students submit their scores to universities they have realist chances of getting into. University recruiters call students who received high scores on the exam, the students’ parents, their high school teachers and even members of their high schools’ administrative staffs. They also arrange for promising recruits to visit their campuses. According to the Ministry of Education, 9.42 million students vied for seven million spots in China’s undergraduate and associate degree programs in 2015. [Source: Yifu Dong, Sinosphere, New York Times, June 30, 2015]

After students receive their gaokao scores they submit their choices to universities expect to hear results within a couple weeks. A high school graduate in Kunming told the New York Times that he had put down the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology as his top choice. But he said if he had done better than his score of 517, out of a possible 750, he might have put down the Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin. “I did the best in my class, so I’m pretty happy with the result,” he said. “So are my parents and most of my friends. But it’s not high enough to get me into the school I’m longing to attend.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times June 30, 2012]

Yuan Qi, a student in Beijing, who had hoped to get into Peking University, scored 670 on the gaokao but the cutoff for Peking University was 690. He told The Guardian a few weeks after results day, he was accepted into Beijing Aviation and Space Flight University, known as Beihang for short. It is a good college, specialising in aeronautics, but with an excellent reputation for maths – not the best of the best, but the best Yuan Qi could have got into. [Source: Alec Ash, The Guardian, October 12, 2016]

Setting the cutoff score can be tricky. Educator Shangguan Caiwei told the New York Times that some students do not rank in the top 10 in their provinces, but they still manage to be accepted to study at prestigious schools like Tsinghua or Peking. “It’s not because of their family background,” she said. “It’s because they determine the cutoff scores of the university in the province.” In other words, every university has a quota in each province, so the goal is to fulfill the recruitment quota with a higher cutoff score than your competitors’. So although some students do not seem like hot commodities, their scores are perfect for elevating the cutoff scores. “If these students are taken by the competitors, then you’ll be forced to lower your own cutoff score” to fulfill the quota, Ms. Shangguan said. “Once your cutoff score is lower than those of your competitors, you lose half of the battle of recruitment. This is what we call ‘a few points determine the difference between heaven and earth.’ ” [Source:Yifu Dong, Sinosphere, New York Times, June 30, 2015]

Some universities have their own recruitment examinations, which take place about three months before official national college entrance exams. In 2013, some top universities in China no longer required an English test as part of their recruitment exams. The New York Times reported: “At some universities, engineering and science applicants now are required to take only mathematics and physics examinations, while arts applicants will need to take only tests in Chinese and mathematics, Xinhua reported, A Tsinghua enrollment officer, Yu Han, told Xinhua that the English requirement had been removed to favor students who excelled in their specific fields of study, and to lighten students’ workloads. [Source: Calvin Yang, New York Times, March 24, 2013]

Paying for University in China

When a student passes a university exam, his or her family is excited. On average, families spend $1,200 on parties, entertainment and supplies and nice clothes. One young woman told Reuters, "My parents were so happy my mother couldn't sleep for days." Her father hosted a party for 20 relatives at an expensive restaurant.

University education was free in the Mao era. Free education on the university level was abolished in 1997 and fees increase at a rate of about 20 percent a year. In some cases college tuition is free. Students who need assistance with food, clothing, and textbooks receive state grants.

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “Since 1953, all college students received tuition-waiver scholarship and free dormitory. The food subsidies depend on the student's family income. Usually 80 percent of the students receive food subsidies from the national government. From 1997, all higher education institutions started charging student fees. Those students whose admission to college is based on their score have been required to pay 4,000 to 6,000 yuan per academic year while those zifeisheng are asked to pay 20,000 to 30,000 yuan per year. [Source:Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Strapped for cash, universities now require students and their families to foot much of the bill for their education. Many families have difficulty coming up with the $1,000 or so needed to cover a year in a Chinese university. Rural families, with an annual income of less than $400, borrow money from relatives and save costs by doing thing like postponing medical care they need and eating less food. Students save money by not going home and borrowing rather than buying books.

20111124-stduent protest Guangzhou.jpg
student protest Guangzhou in 2010

Degrees and Majors at Chinese Universities

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “The structure of Chinese higher education is still based on the Soviet pattern in which the arts and sciences are taught at comprehensive universities with separate institutions responsible for other fields. Academic departments within each institution still follow the Soviet example by offering a host of narrow specialties or majors, conforming to specific job requirements. Since the late 1980s, most Chinese universities have adopted the credit system, aiming to grant all undergraduates the opportunity to select courses in areas outside their own specialization. These courses are often in interesting new areas of the humanities and are offered as frequently in specialist engineering and agricultural universities as in comprehensive universities. However, students still have little freedom of choice among courses, and they choose not to study at their own pace because to graduate out of turn would disrupt the predetermined enrollment and job assignment plans. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “A student's major is decided before entering college. After the college entrance examination, students, teachers, and parents meet based on the estimates of each student's entrance examination scores to choose a college and a major. Every college publicizes their standard cutoff point after the examination. The main purpose is to get into a college. Parents and students are realistic enough not to pick a good school whose cut-off point is above the estimated student's score. Once entering the college, students cannot change their majors. Each academic year is divided into spring and fall semesters. The former lasts from February to July while the latter is from September to January. University degree programs are usually either three or four years in length. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The degree system in China is still in quite an early stage in its development. Despite attempts to set up a degree system during the 1950s and 1960s, it was successfully established only after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and first implemented on January 1, 1981. A complete undergraduate education consists of four years of study, at which time the student is granted a diploma, which is separate from the B.A. degree. Only those students who have successfully completed a senior thesis along with their four years of study are granted a B.A. degree. In the late 1980s, double major programs have been introduced to outstanding students, and major/minor programs have been arranged for students wishing to develop a second area of professional expertise.

“Since the establishment of the Academics Degrees Committee under the State Council, graduate programs have been rapidly developed. Master's studies last for three years (full-time) with heavy coursework in the first two years and a thesis to follow. Doctoral studies are also normally full-time over three years, again with substantial coursework. It was only in the 1990s that institutions began to accept postgraduate studies in a part-time mode. Strict academic control has been maintained through a system whereby academic departments must be approved by the academic degree committee before they can enroll masters students, and only individual professors of high academic standing are accredited to supervise doctoral students. While expansion has been extremely rapid at the master's level, there has been much greater caution at the doctoral level. Graduate enrollments have grown from 21,604 students in 1980 to 198,885 students in 1998.

Chinese University Curriculum

China produces a higher ratio of science to humanities majors than almost any other nation. Non-science classes are concentered in politics and foreign languages. The curriculum largely ignores China’s centuries-old tradition of teaching morality and philosophical thought. The result are graduates that are well trained but often dismiss the human and moral side of issues. A typical graduate becomes a technocrat who supports grandiose engineering projects because they represent progress but don’t think deeply about the point of what they are doing.

The Ke Jiao Xing Guo curriculum, which focuses on science and technology education (Ke Jiao,) to improve the quality of the labor force and revive the economy, was first implemented in 1978. It’s goal has been to bring prosperity to the whole country (Xing Guo,). Software engineering schools have been established in 35 universities in China. [Source: Charlene Zheyan, Ministry of Tofu, October 15, 2013]

In the 2000s many Chinese universities began moving towards the Western model of a liberal arts education. Peking University began requiring students to take basic courses from five varied fields in their first year and select a major and begin specializing in their second year. Liberal arts colleges like Peking University’s Yuanpei College, and Sun Yat-Sen University’s Boya School were established

In recent years movement has been in the other direction. University students are required to take classes on Marxist theory. In the 2000s students complained how out of step the Marxism courses are with the reality of modern China and some universities use the time to teach Confucian values instead. But recently there has been an uptick in interest in Marxism. See Below.

Political Classes at a Chinese University

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: At Sichuan University, a half-dozen political courses were mandatory for all undergrads. My Fuling students had had similar requirements, but since then another two decades of Communist history had piled up, and now the course names seemed to be getting longer: Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought and Theoretical System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, Research on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]

If these titles were ungainly, things got worse when you opened the texts: “Only by taking the socialist core values as a major task with basic internality and targeted norms can we realize these core values while enhancing the people’s self-confidence in the path forward, theoretical self-confidence, institutional self-confidence, and cultural self-confidence, in order to ensure that socialism with Chinese characteristics is always moving in the right direction and constantly showing stronger vitality.” That sentence was quoted by one of my freshmen, who wrote his argumentative essay in favor of reforming the political classes. His topic was among the edgiest, which made it difficult to research.

According to the Financial Times: Chinese universities offering Marxism degrees inculcate students in the philosophy developed by Karl Marx as interpreted by Xi and his revolutionary idol, Mao Zedong. A curriculum for a three-year masters program in Marxism at a university in central Henan province includes a module on the “principle and methods of thought education” and 18 hours of study of Xi’s speeches on education. [Source: Sun Yu, Financial Times, June 28, 2022]

Low Regard for Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at Chinese Universities

China lags behind rich nations in social science development. According to the South China Morning Post: There is no Chinese academic journal in social sciences among the world’s top 300 journals compiled by SCImago Journal and Country Rank, which measures the international influence of scholarly journals. And there are only two China-published academic social-science journals listed among the thousands used by the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI). The index is maintained by Thomson Reuters’ health-care division. Chinese social scientists and academics published 6,548 papers in SSCI-recognised journals between 1978 and 2007, an annual average of 218 each year, or about 0.16 per cent of the global total published by SSCI publications during the period. [Source: South China Morning Post, October 5, 2014]

Charlene Zheyan wrote in the Ministry of Tofu:“Liberal arts education in China is still in its experimental stage, and a majority of college students are pursuing more practical science degrees. While top universities in China have embraced the value of this teaching method since 2005, it’s still hard for employers to accept liberal arts graduates. Employers seem to believe liberal arts programs are not necessarily related to a professional or vocational path; graduates who are accustomed to flying high in the sky of abstract knowledge and theories, may end up crash landing in the real, practical and material world.[Source: Charlene Zheyan, Ministry of Tofu, October 15, 2013]

“The contrast between say, a Mechanical Engineering major’s quest for marketable skills versus an Ancient Chinese Literature major’s is in how either spends a term… “It took us a whole semester to finish only the first hundred years in Zuo Zhuan,” said Ma Zhiyi, a rising sophomore at Sun Yat-Sen University’s Boya School.

As the majority suffers under the pressure of job-hunting, some students like Wan Xinyan, a 21-year-old graduate from Beijing Foreign Language University wish “that higher education can be more diverse.” Rapid growth isn’t the only reason for the lack of breadth in China’s curriculum, the system itself is outdated. “I did not want to dive into science immediately,” says Wu Dingyi, a rising junior who opted to take social science classes at Yuanpei College. Boya School’s core curriculum emphasizes Chinese and Western classical reading and encourages independent thinking and free discussion . Ma Zhiyi developed an appreciation for archaeology during a prerequisite class she took as a freshman at Boya School. “If I had not come to Boya, I would have never taken an archaeology course.” She went on to say that it has become one of her favorite subjects.

“However, there is a high opportunity cost of going against the mainstream. Liberal arts college graduates in China seem to have trouble finding jobs. This summer, Boya School graduated its very first class of 30 liberal arts students. Only four have launched their careers . One is working for an NGO. Cai Shuying, is one of the recent Boya graduates to land a job straight out of school, but struggled to justify her major. “It often takes me a while to explain to employers what a liberal arts education is ” she says. Boya’s undergrads, like Ma Zhiyi, are engaged in reading Chinese classics and free learning. For now, they’re not worried about finding jobs, and they refuse to think about their career in a conventional way. Ma said, “I think about the purpose of living. Why should I live? If I can’t work that idea out, it would be hard for me even if I got a job”.

Marxism Majors Increase in China as Jobs Become Hard to Find

In the early 2020s, the number of students choosing Marxism as their major increased. Coincidently or not, this occurred as the labour market in China tightened as students found it harder to land jobs. The Financial Times reported: Despite being China’s ruling ideology, Marxism has for decades been an obscure major for students. But it is enjoying a revival under President Xi Jinping, who has urged Chinese Communist party cadres to “remember the original mission”. According to Yingjiesheng, a leading job search website for university graduates, there has been a 20 per cent increase in openings that require a Marxism degree in the second quarter — the peak hiring season — compared with the same period last year. Marxism experts are being sought by employers ranging from government departments to private conglomerates. [Source: Sun Yu, Financial Times, June 28, 2022]

Analysts said the popularity of Marxism graduates underscored Xi’s efforts to strengthen ideological education as China’s rivalry with the US intensified, with the powers taking radically different approaches to everything from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to coronavirus pandemic management. “The purpose of the major is to train thought police to brainwash the entire population,” said Ming Xia, a political-science professor at the City University of New York.[Source: Sun Yu, Financial Times, June 28, 2022]

Prior to Xi’s rise to power in late 2012, Marxism courses struggled to gain traction in a country that emphasised economic prosperity over ideological correctness during the three-decade reform era launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Under Deng, the party popularised catchphrases such as “it is glorious to get rich” and assured entrepreneurs that it was acceptable for “some people to get rich first”. Deng’s successor as leader, Jiang Zemin, formally invited private sector businessmen and women to join the party. Xi, however, has made it clear that he intends to preside over an ideologically stricter “new era” that will prioritise “common prosperity”, tighter regulation of private sector conglomerates and a less stark rich-poor divide in what is one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Xi’s government has cracked down on young people who apply Marxist analysis too critically to abuses of labour allowed under China’s system of state capitalism. But it has boosted demand for Marxism teachers, who now play a critical role in educating the public about why China’s communist regime is superior to the west. In a circular issued in 2018, the same year the party eliminated the previous two-term limit on the presidency, the education ministry told universities they should hire at least one Marxism instructor for every 350 students.

A talent acquisition boom quickly followed, with the number of university “ideology and politics” teachers increasing by two-thirds over the next four years. The degree appears recession-proof. Youth unemployment is at a historic high of 18.4 per cent, limiting the number of opportunities available for other majors. But Yingjiesheng records show that Marxism teachers’ salaries and benefits are catching up with those on offer to jobseekers with previously more popular majors such as business administration.

In northern Shaanxi province, where urban workers make an average of Rmb52,000 ($7,760) per year, Xi’an University of Science and Technology is offering Marxism PhDs an annual base salary of Rmb200,000, a Rmb20,000 signing bonus and free housing. “This is the golden time for Marxism majors,” said an official at the university, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak with foreign media.

Other education institutions, ranging from kindergartens to high schools, are also actively hiring Marxism graduates in accordance with directives requiring students as young as 10 to study “Xi Jinping thought”. On southern Hainan island, one elite high school is offering Marxism teachers annual salaries of Rmb150,000, high by local standards. “The study of Marxism and Xi Jinping thought must begin from an early age,” said an official at PKU Haikou High School, which is affiliated with Peking University in Beijing. “That creates ample demand for tutors.”

Private sector companies are also hiring Marxism majors in an effort to showcase their allegiance to the party in the wake of crackdowns on technology and property entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and Ant, and China Evergrande chair Hui Ka Yan. Recommended Xi Jinping ‘All the power is in his hands’: why Xi Jinping remains supreme “It helps to have someone who speaks the party’s language work for us,” said David Tong, who owns a machine tool factory in the eastern city of Ningbo, near Shanghai. “The government will trust us more.”

Classes in a Chinese University

Students usually listen to lectures. Discussions and seminars are rare, and in many cases discouraged. On subjects that deal with Communist ideology students are taught to memorize and authenticate what they learn not question, analyze, contemplate or investigate it. Exams that regurgitate learned material are often all that matters. Critical thinking and course work often count for little.

Classrooms are not heated or air conditioned. In the winter students show up in their winter coats, scarves and gloves. Sometimes their ears and noses turn red and you can see their breath. Describing his English literature class at Fuling Teachers College in the 1990s, Peter Hessler wrote in the New Yorker, "There were forty-five students to a class, all of them close together behind old wooden desks. Maintaining the room was their responsibility. They washed the blackboards between classes, and twice a week they cleaned the floor and windows. If the cleaning wasn't adequate, the class was fined. Students were fined for missing morning exercises, for skipping classes, for failing examinations, for returning late to their dormitories at night. Very few of them had money to spend in this way, so the class rooms were thoroughly cleaned." My students were never wary of impossible tasks. They would work at anything without complaint, probably because they knew that even the most difficult assignment was preferable to wading knee-deep in muck behind a water buffalo."

David Ho wrote in the South China Morning Post: ““Walking round the campus, I noticed many students, especially those in large lecture rooms, dozing off, playing computer games, reading newspapers, doing their own work, and so forth, without paying the slightest attention to what the lecturers were saying. Yet the lecturers went on talking, oblivious to the students’ inattention. Students say that such disrespectful inattention is common throughout China. What has the docile, obedient and deferential Chinese student become? [Source: David Ho South China Morning Post, October 14, 2014]

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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