Protests on Rise at Chinas Private Universities


2006-06-30
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Shengda Business School security guards patrol the gates of Zhengzhou University following clashes on campus, June 20, 2006. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—Thousands of students at China’s burgeoning private universities and colleges have staged riots, protests, and sit-ins in response to new regulations that affect what type of degree they receive, students and analysts say.

Disputes sometimes erupt over excessive fees levied by private colleges, which typically charge more than three times the tuition state institutions require. Others are about the quality of teaching provided, or about the status of their degree on graduation.

“I still have the prospectus we were given when we applied to the university,” a female student from the privately funded Shengda Business School in the central city of Zhengzhou told RFA’s Cantonese service.

“They told our intake and the year that came after us that we would get a degree certificate issued by Zhengzhou University. That was the promise they made to us.”

Promises not kept

But she said she and her classmates didn’t discover that the degree certificates made no mention of Zhengzhou University until the graduation ceremony.

“The school admitted that the brochure made such a promise, but it said it was a printing error. It’s obvious that they deliberately deceived the students,” she told reporter Lillian Cheung.

The school admitted that the brochure made such a promise, but it said it was a printing error. It’s obvious that they deliberately deceived the students.

Earlier this month, several thousand students at Shengda went on strike, staging a sit-in on campus for several days in the row over degree certificates.

Rioters destroyed school property, rampaging through dormitory buildings, shops, and a bank, which had its windows smashed.

Another Shengda student said that Zhengzhou University was ranked 50th in the country, and that the promised degree certificate was the only thing that made most of the students put their names down for it in the first place.

“Shengda costs more than 10,000 yuan (U.S.$1,250) a year, which is a total of 50,000 yuan for the entire four-year course,” he said. Typically, annual fees at state institutions of higher education amount to around 3,000 yuan (U.S.$375).

Students lured by links

“Many of the students enrolled in this college only on the promise of the degree certificate, because Zhengzhou University is a prestigious college ranked 50th in the country. They all wanted to get a certificate bearing the name of that university.”

He said the problem became all the more acute amid high rates of graduate unemployment in China, where a degree certificate from a prestigious university would help graduates beat off tough competition.

Private universities, which haven’t yet established their credentials, often team up with top-flight state-run colleges to attract students, many of whom are swayed by the apparent association.

One student from the Bohai Institute in the northeastern city of Shenyang said she chose the college because of its links with Shenyang Normal University.

“We were the first intake of students to this college, and we were all attracted by the good name of the Shenyang Normal University,” she said. “During the first term, the teachers and the curriculum were the same as at the Shenyang Normal University.”

The Bohai Institute is evidently not alone in drawing upon older universities for teaching staff and even classroom space, nor in promising a first-class degree certificate to its students, who see second-class colleges as a last resort.

Ministry changes rules

But in 2003 the Education Ministry pulled the rug from under their feet, with a new set of rules requiring second-class universities to display their names on the degree certificates they hand to graduates.

In December 2005, around 3,000 students at the Dongruan Information Institution affiliated to China’s Northeastern University went on a rampage smashing school property in anger at the change, which meant that the Northeastern University’s name would not appear on their degree certificates as promised.

Meanwhile, in the eastern city of Hangzhou, several hundred students from the Qiushi Institute took a petition to the provincial complaints office, sitting outside the office until they were escorted back to their college.

Those protests also erupted because both second-class colleges continued to use the promise of first-class degree certificates to attract students, well after the new rules had been announced.

Hangzhou-based Web author Xu Yan, who takes a special interest in China’s private higher education sector, said the private universities were often seen by students as money-grubbing, and not much concerned with education.

“They aren’t putting the students’ education first. They are wondering where they can attract more funding from,” Xu said.

Corporate backing

He said private universities, which are officially non-profit organizations, needed to be more transparent about their finances.

“Officials say that these universities aren’t making a profit, and that they are financed by bank loans, but if they weren’t making a profit they wouldn’t be able to continue, because many of them have corporate investors,” Xu said.

China has had private universities only for seven years, and they are accorded second-class status. They can be wholly privately owned, or joint ventures with foreign companies.

At the end of 2005, China had 252 private higher education institutions, around 20 more than the total number of state-run colleges, according to figures issued by the Shanghai Educational Science Institute.

But Xu Yan said the root of the problem lay with China’s large population and relatively small number of colleges.

“China has a huge population, with a correspondingly large demand for higher education,” Xu said. “If they had to rely on the state-run universities, then we would have a situation in which a lot of people would never get to college at all,” he said.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lillian Cheung. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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