Universities in China Veer Westward

Special to The Times

Signaling a shift toward a Western liberal arts system, China's top universities are introducing changes to give students a broader education and more freedom to choose their majors.

The shift also heralds the gradual dismantling of China's Soviet-style education system, which was designed to meet the needs of the state rather than the individual.

The old system "ignored the primacy of the student" in education "and is ill suited to the needs of China's market economy," said Lu Xiaodong, deputy director of Beijing University's Office of Education Administration.

Under the reforms, influenced by Harvard's core curriculum, Beijing University freshmen will take basic courses in five fields: mathematics and natural sciences; social sciences; philosophy and psychology; history; and language, literature and the arts.

For the first time, prospective freshmen will choose an academic department before enrolling and then declare one of several majors offered by that department during their sophomore year. A smaller test group will first select either a sciences or humanities specialization and finish their core courses in the first year before declaring a major the next year.

The reforms' goal, Lu said, is to eventually create an American-style system in which students do not have to declare a major until their third year and can switch majors to suit changing interests.

High school students currently must declare their top three choices of both universities and majors before taking the national college entrance exam in July. Each major has its own required minimum score on the exam.

Beijing University senior Chen Qiuping had wanted to major in biology, but her score was too low, so she settled for information management.

"We really don't understand much about our majors when we pick them," she said. "Actually, I'm not very well suited to my major, so I support these reforms wholeheartedly."

In a recent survey reported by the Beijing Youth Daily, only a third of college students said they understood their majors when they picked them in high school. More than a third said their majors were incompatible with their interests. Once they pick majors, students have little chance of changing them.

After China adopted the Soviet model of education in 1952, the government paid all students' tuition and assigned them majors and jobs. It decided how many majors in each field would be needed based on official projections of personnel needs.

The state enforced a strict monopoly over education. Its task was to produce graduates who were "both red and expert" -- both steadfast Marxists to carry on the Communist cause and engineers to staff the state's military and industrial sectors.

Chinese leaders trained under this system share similar backgrounds. All nine members of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo Standing Committee have engineering or science degrees. Three graduated from Qinghua University, China's MIT. Paramount leader Jiang Zemin and two Politburo Standing Committee members worked in the First Ministry of Machine Building.

Chinese universities have a higher ratio of science to humanities majors than those of any other nation, and science majors' non-science courses are concentrated in politics and foreign languages, according to Yang Dongping, an education expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

Educators now generally agree on the system's flaws. It largely ignored China's millenniums-old humanist traditions, which, Yang said, focused on teaching morality. It produced intellectuals who were highly trained but poorly versed in culture and spiritually adrift. It bred technocrats who considered the mechanics and feasibility of massive state engineering projects but not their ethics or environmental costs.

Despite its part in improving the nation's literacy rate, higher education was largely elitist, with top urban schools receiving a disproportionate share of resources. China decided to provide mass higher education and require all students to pay tuition in the late 1990s.

In 2000, the country's 1,841 institutions of higher learning enrolled a total of 11 million students, or roughly 11% of the college-age population. The government's target is for a 15% enrollment rate by 2005. Currently, about 4% of this population has access to four-year, non-vocational colleges.

The changes have boosted Chinese awareness of education not as an aspect of the state but as a marketplace in which students have rights and choices. Perceptions of unfair college admissions procedures have given rise to several highly publicized lawsuits.

At present, only a handful of China's top universities have instituted the reforms on a limited basis. Some universities' academic departments, whose control over personnel and budgets are threatened by the reforms, have resisted implementing them, Beijing University's Lu said.

Education expert Yang points out that the reforms represent increased autonomy in university administration.

"But this is not the same as academic freedom" -- without which, he said, no institution can aspire to being a modern university.

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