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Han Chen

Translation: What’s Wrong With Chinese Higher Education

Chinese students often find that the reality of college life does not comport with the reputation. Image via news.sciencenet.cn

To many people in China, domestic universities are known for “narrow admissions, wide exit” while American universities have “easy admissions, tough exit.” This means that Chinese students facing the high school entrance exam (“gaokao” in Chinese) are under extreme pressure to gain college admittance; but entering college is the beginning of a relatively carefree four years. By contrast, many believe that colleges in America are much easier to enter; but it is much harder to graduate from them due to a more rigorous academic experience.

The excerpts below are from an article, “Reflections of a Wuhan University graduate,” forwarded on both Sina Blog and Douban, a blogging site for China’s young, urbane crowd. A graduate from an elite Chinese university describes his experiences in the “填鸭教育” (literally “stuffing the duck,” or “spoon feeding”) system–also known as 应试教育 (“rote learning”)–and why he became disillusioned with the education system. Tea Leaf Nation translates; the section headings are our own.

More than five years ago, I entered an elite national university: Wuhan University. I had great enthusiasm, and thought I was on a grand path to serve my country and to serve my parents.

Three years ago, with skepticism and doubts about “my university,” I resigned as deputy secretary of the Communist Youth League, and began in earnest to think about and read about my life, my school and my future. I looked for a solution to all the problems I couldn’t understand around me. This decision meant that I was forsaking the “lofty ideal” of contributing to my nation through “politics [government work].”

A year and a half ago, I started to understand the essence of Chinese universities, and no longer wished to delude myself and continue “studying”… and left China’s hypocritically laughable “elite academic society.” I was determined to find a company, commit to “real work,” and stand on the front line of the Chinese economy, in order to make a real effort and contribution for my country, society, and self. Because I didn’t want to use the gold-plated “diploma” and “culture” to fool myself or others.

What China lacks is not money, what I lack is not money. China lacks culture and education. The same goes for me!

Everyone thought I went crazy… and didn’t understand why I was giving up on what Chinese people have been indoctrinated with since youth, the “most authentic,” “most correct” “most natural” path. … You can decide for yourself: Am I crazy or is society crazy?

Everyone has a role model in their youth, especially boys. In your hearts there is the imprint of historical heroes, and I’m no exception. Since fourth grade, I read Zhou Enlai’s biography and it had a profound impact on me…

Henceforth, I so admired this great premier, and determined to be such a good person. If possible, I’d be a great leader like him.

Chinese colleges–the ideal vs. the reality

When I entered school, and truly entered that learning environment, I found that this place was unlike the peaceful school campus that I’d read about in books. All sorts of people running around, large and small cars coming and going, advertisements and posters everywhere, an old lady walking her dog on the lawn. No one reciting their books like I’d read about in elementary school, how come this university wasn’t as good as an elementary school? Do none of the students read? I was confused.

When classes started, I realized that this is how students go to class:

When the bell rings, students wearing slippers and eating breakfast saunter into the classroom. After finishing their breakfast they look up at the teacher, who is talking about something boring, then they sprawl out and go back to sleep. Some students sleep so long, the university saying going around is that “Wake up and it is 10 a.m., sleep to 11:30 a.m., then eat breakfast and lunch together.”

At 11 p.m., when things should be quiet, a time of rest, if you go into the boys dormitory, you definitely can see that the nightlife has just begun; [students are] playing games, playing mahjong or reading martial arts novels, and generally bustling.

The author is onto something here. In today’s society, Chinese families place a great deal of pressure and expectations on their child to attend college, get a secure job, and look after his or her parents in their old age. Children are often so accustomed to being alternately coddled and pressured by their families to get into college that the freedom of campus life comes as too great a shock.

One student’s father was supposedly so worried he actually quit work and became a dormitory attendant to watch over his son. In hopes of fostering more independence among students, some schools are cancelling their pickup service at airports and train stations to encourage students to find their own way. Parts of campus have been cordoned off from parents during orientation to help “wean” freshmen from their parents. Some are concerned that those Chinese born after 1990, often cannot even book their own train or air tickets and rely solely on their parents.) 

This TLN author, a Tsinghua University alum, disagrees with the notion that students attending class in slippers or pajamas signal a failure in the education system; but it’s safe to say that many foreigners attending Chinese universities have come away with mixed reactions about university life in China.

Basically a four-year course in video gaming

Rarely are they seen reading, discussing philosophy, but rather you can see them renting rooms at Internet bars for the night, or connecting computers to play games, such that students feel forced to “join the crowd” and “learn” to play video games to get along with roommates. Games have become the primary “educational content” for male students, and many of them study it strenuously all four years.

One classmate skipped so many classes that he was expelled. His mother kneeled in front of the department’s dean and said: “At home I eat discarded vegetables to support his schooling, please give him one more chance!” When I heard what she said to the dean, I was shocked. The mom is eating discarded leaves and her son is in the city playing video games, dawdling around?  And wants “another chance?” Should he get another chance to continue playing video games?

…. 

For the ladies, a “Degree in Intense Korean Dramas” and “Minor in Unrealistic Expectations”

Another classmate at Xi’an Electronics and Science University said that, “If my mom stayed at the university for one week [and saw what was going on], she would definitely have me drop out of school.” Because “university” in China is probably the easiest time of one’s life. You can play video games, watch TV, skip classes, and read martial arts hero novels, which is what a lot of male students do at school. And the girls? They watch Korean dramas; most girls’ curriculum consists of watching Korean dramas and other TV series, romances, one episode after the other.

The noble quest for “knowledge”?

Of course, not all students were goofing off; there are also some who work very hard. But they are also similarly confused; the reason they study is “fear” and pressure: Scared of not finding work, scared of not getting into a master’s program.

….

Few students study hard because they are seeking knowledge, seeking truth, or learning for the sake of the country or the people. These students are not “playing at life,” but rather are living in a high-pressure psychological state, their thinking becoming more and more sluggish, so that “the more they learn, the stupider they are.” In fact, those students who kill themselves every year are not the “lazy” students or “bad” students, but the ones with severe psychological depression from all the pressure, the hardworking “good” students. They are all the same; once they start school and face difficulties, are forced onto the “right direction”, they are willing to obey “authoritative conclusions,” and “learn” out of their own psychological pressure rather than the calling of their soul. Is this really better than playing video games and watching DVDs all day? What is the point of university? Students have lost their ideals.

…. 

“Teachers” in name only

First off, the education in each major is confusing. Many teachers teach right out off the book. University professors who really care about teaching, about students, and are able to teach, are becoming fewer and fewer. It’s unclear what the professors are off doing.

….

The teaching materials are puzzling as well. Even if there are nationally recognized teaching materials for the subject, such as the Tongji fifth edition of advanced mathematics, teachers still choose to use the university’s publications which are difficult and obscure.

Then I learned that teachers use their own materials in order to get a “professional title” so they can have “scientific research achievements.” So they put together a patchwork of random materials which no book store would treat as anything but trash. So the professors use their authority in the classroom to force students to use their books.

….

More and more I realize that this supposedly “elite university” did not offer a place for real knowledge.

….
Second, the teachers do not care about learning and inquiry.

Third, the university leadership does not care about learning. They don’t care about teachers, and think of teachers only as employees. They also don’t care about students, and ignore the wishes and needs of students.

.…

Degrees for sale

They don’t care how students are received by society, and don’t care if courses or disciplines are designed to suit educational or societal needs. They only care about protecting their own position, how to “buy and sell diplomas” how to “schmooze” with officials in society. Teachers tell me that Wuhan University awarded the title of “Distinguished Professor” to many officials, and handed out numerous “PhDs” to government officials at various levels, only because they were “officials” so the school wished to “authenticate” that they are “highly knowledgeable” and give them this “intellectual cachet.”

This is an open secret. Everyone knows that a few months ago two leaders at Wuhan were caught, one of whom was recognized with “national honors” as an “outstanding leader.” This was just exposing the tip of the iceberg. Apparently many “university leaders” were scared that they were going to be exposed as well. I trust this is true not only for Wuhan University, and perhaps other universities are more corrupt.

….

Education in pursuit of…what? 

For the guys, a “Degree in Too Much Gaming” and a “Minor in Awkward”

If we look at our country and the three decades of reform and opening, China has seen the birth of many companies:Huawei, Lenovo, etcetera. People have created and accumulated so much material wealth. Our material lives are better and better. And yet we work harder and harder in the pursuit of money. We have such a high GDP, but we face increasing societal problems: Environmental pollution from industry, the physiological and psychological health of urban white-collar workers is deteriorating, fewer white-collar women can find marriages, and more college graduates cannot find work. And those in the cities have material wealth but a lack of spirit. They waste their time on bars, online games, banquets, etcetera. Suicide rates among adolescents, children, and college students are rising. And the culture is more and more vulgar. And so in university I was confused by such a problem. Why do we have such problems? How do we solve them? Can we rely on the pursuit of money?

….

There were two purposes to writing this article:

1. In order to awaken university students from their slumber to examine their lives rather than following the crowd, parroting others; because God helps those who help themselves.

 2. To get more people to care about and reflect upon the education system, since this will influence the happiness of us all.

Just because the teachers, universities and society are not fulfilling their responsibilities to us, we should not go adrift. On the contrary, it is because the schools and society are not meeting their responsibilities that we should take more responsibility for ourselves, to think more and to choose our own lives.

It’s true that university students in the U.S. can experience the same shock upon entering college, but usually not to the same degree as described by the author of the above essay. If any of our readers are illustrious alumni of a Chinese university and you would like to offer your opinions, they are welcome in the comments section below.

6 Comments
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Han Chen

  • J. Adams

    Sadly, the whole article rings true from my experience of teaching at a university in NE China for eight years.

    Students didn’t feel an inner drive to educate themselves – that was external pressure from parents and teachers in high school, and suddenly in university, that pressure almost vanishes.

    Teachers in university almost all have other jobs (usually in their same field) in the private sector – which is much more profitable than teaching.

  • J. Adams

    Sadly, the whole article rings true from my experience of teaching at a university in NE China for eight years.

    Students didn’t feel an inner drive to educate themselves – that was external pressure from parents and teachers in high school, and suddenly in university, that pressure almost vanishes.

    Teachers in university almost all have other jobs (usually in their same field) in the private sector – which is much more profitable than teaching.

  • MA Peter

    I’d like make some comments arising from my 9 years in China as a university English teacher in both Shanghai and the NW. Firstly, it is becoming increasing more competitive to get into a college or university in the US. Better grades, higher SAT scores, recommendations and extracurricular activities. I probably wouldn’t be admitted to the college I attended in the ’80s. Of course in both the PRC and US there are students who don’t apply themselves. They party, don’t attend classes, don’t study, play video games, surf the Internet etc. In China it is a problem of becoming independent as I’ve observed with my freshman who have been told what to do in a very structured environment in high school. True, the curriculum is generally the rote method, but I’ve been encouraged to observe the reform in English education even here in a poorer province through New Curriculum using the communicative methodology. 20 years ago, I taught at the prestigious Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. My students were of a higher caliber and language ability. We used our own curriculum, divided them into their appropriate levels, limited classes to 15 students and taught all the skills in an intensive program. This was probably one of the only programs throughout China. My students were much different than those I teach today. They generally worked harder and the curriculum cultivated greater improvement in their English development. Continued reform is needed. We foreigners can help by co-teaching with our Chinese colleagues, providing teacher development etc. Also parents need to be more involved in their kids lives, discipline, set limits and require them to help around the house. The current generation is craving this kind of interaction.
    Mark A. Peter, MA, MA
    He is a graduate of Whittier College, Simon Greenleaf School of Law, Cal State Fullerton and CIU. Mr. Peter has taught every level of student from K-adults in public and private schools. He’s taught on three continents and has traveled to more than 25 countries.

  • MA Peter

    I’d like make some comments arising from my 9 years in China as a university English teacher in both Shanghai and the NW. Firstly, it is becoming increasing more competitive to get into a college or university in the US. Better grades, higher SAT scores, recommendations and extracurricular activities. I probably wouldn’t be admitted to the college I attended in the ’80s. Of course in both the PRC and US there are students who don’t apply themselves. They party, don’t attend classes, don’t study, play video games, surf the Internet etc. In China it is a problem of becoming independent as I’ve observed with my freshman who have been told what to do in a very structured environment in high school. True, the curriculum is generally the rote method, but I’ve been encouraged to observe the reform in English education even here in a poorer province through New Curriculum using the communicative methodology. 20 years ago, I taught at the prestigious Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. My students were of a higher caliber and language ability. We used our own curriculum, divided them into their appropriate levels, limited classes to 15 students and taught all the skills in an intensive program. This was probably one of the only programs throughout China. My students were much different than those I teach today. They generally worked harder and the curriculum cultivated greater improvement in their English development. Continued reform is needed. We foreigners can help by co-teaching with our Chinese colleagues, providing teacher development etc. Also parents need to be more involved in their kids lives, discipline, set limits and require them to help around the house. The current generation is craving this kind of interaction.
    Mark A. Peter, MA, MA
    He is a graduate of Whittier College, Simon Greenleaf School of Law, Cal State Fullerton and CIU. Mr. Peter has taught every level of student from K-adults in public and private schools. He’s taught on three continents and has traveled to more than 25 countries.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joseph-Lee/100003511510572 Joseph Lee

    YES. NO COME TO CLASS..

    ADMIT/NO ADMIT… TO COLLEGE

    Japan/Korea/ China/Taiwan are all modelled the same….

    1. Heavy on Exams. Exam Hell…

    2. Once Admitted. party, video-games, beef for 4-years..

    3. USA President George W. Bush party 4-years at Yale. C-Student in History..

    4. COLLEGE IS NEW HIGH SCHOOL. USA: 80% go to college now..

    5. College was once a rare-elite. Few can go. Now, all industrialized nations send 50-80% to attend college..

    6. COLLEGE IS NEW HIGH SCHOOL. Party hard before a real-job in real-world…

  • Charles Darwin

    YES. NO COME TO CLASS..

    ADMIT/NO ADMIT… TO COLLEGE

    Japan/Korea/ China/Taiwan are all modelled the same….

    1. Heavy on Exams. Exam Hell…

    2. Once Admitted. party, video-games, beef for 4-years..

    3. USA President George W. Bush party 4-years at Yale. C-Student in History..

    4. COLLEGE IS NEW HIGH SCHOOL. USA: 80% go to college now..

    5. College was once a rare-elite. Few can go. Now, all industrialized nations send 50-80% to attend college..

    6. COLLEGE IS NEW HIGH SCHOOL. Party hard before a real-job in real-world…