The 1952 reorganization of higher education resulted in three types of government-controlled institutions. First, there were a small number of comprehensive universities with departments in the classical arts and science disciplines of the European tradition, as well as six national normal universities that had departments of education, fine arts, and music, which were established with the intention of training academic teachers for the secondary and tertiary level. Second, based on the Marxian concept of polytechnical education and a broad exposure to the applied sciences, several great polytechnical universities such as Qinghua and Jiaotong were reorganized with the broad range of engineering sciences included in their curricula. Finally, since some sectors of the society need special kinds of knowledge, some colleges were designed to train advanced personnel to meet these special demands. Thus, medical colleges and institutions of finance, economics, political science, and law were created for this purpose. At the head of the system was a new revolutionary university, People's University, which had the task of developing an authoritative Marxist, Leninist, and Maoist canon for the social sciences. By the end of 1953, all private institutions of higher learning had been taken over by the government.
The educational reform document of 1985 dictates that Chinese higher educational institutions are responsible for two main tasks: "training advanced personnel" and "developing science, technology, and culture." Abolishing the excessive government control of past policies, the State Education Commission promised new autonomy to universities, including freedom to develop "ties with productive units, scientific research institutions," and greater jurisdiction over the institution's curriculum and the use of state funds. As part of the scheme to make China a modernized country in the twenty-first century, a few private institutions have also been established either by social organizations or individuals. All universities are required to abide by the principles set forth in the Chinese Constitution. In 1998, approximately 3,409,000 students were enrolled in 1,020 higher education institutions.
Since 1949, owing to the different political and economic situations in China, the weighing of admissions criteria constantly shifted, depending on the political climate. Immediately following the Communists' rise to power, admissions criteria focused heavily on the background of a student's family: the "good" (red) classes included the workers, peasants, the former poor, Revolutionary cadres, and revolutionary martyrs; the "bad" (black) consisted of former capitalists, landlords, rich peasants, Nationalists, reactionaries, and criminals. Later, however, because China was in desperate need of professionals and engineers for socialist construction, academic achievement became more important than class background in admissions criteria. Deng Xiaoping's reforms abolished class background as a factor of consideration altogether. Instead, he instituted the national unified college entrance examinations taken by high school graduates in their last school year. Students are admitted to colleges according to two factors: their scores in the gaokao (unified college entrance examination) and the quotas of enrollment in specific institutions and specific majors. The quotas are assigned to an institution according to a national plan. Students obtain an average score in the gaokao, in a range that permits choices of specialties in institutions. Each major within a college sets up a fenshuxian (score mark), meaning cut-off score. Students whose score is below the cut-off point cannot be accepted by that institution. A prestigious university, usually a key institution, may require a score of 850 out of 900 for entrance. A second-rate institution may require only 600. Economic reforms have motivated institutions to admit zifeisheng (self-supported students) since 1995 in order to increase income. Zifeisheng are candidates below the cut-off point and hence outside the state plan.
Meanwhile, there is a direct entrance system that allows a tiny number of superior students who achieve outstanding examination results or win prizes in important academic contests to enroll directly in a designated postsecondary institution without sitting for the college entrance examination. Key universities allot several minge (positions) to appropriate key secondary schools, and students to fill them are normally selected by a school administrator and the student's homeroom teacher in consultation with the student and his or her parents. This process is extremely competitive except for students who choose to enter institutions, such as normal colleges and universities, which have trouble attracting highly qualified students.
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.
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.
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.
Until the 1980s college graduates' jobs were guaranteed. Under the old job assignment system, central and provincial authorities drew up the employment plans each year. The Communist Party of China (CPC) organization within each school then assigned their graduates to fill the slots. Since the mid-1990s the system has been in transition from centralized job assignment to allowing market mechanisms to determine job placement. In early 1988, the State Education Commission asked higher learning institutions in Guangdong Province to start experimenting on a new package of enrollment, tuition, and job assignment reforms. As a part of the design to institute aspects of the free market into China's centralized socialist system, the aims of this package of reforms are to abolish free higher education, to change the centralized system of enrollment (student enrollment quota to each school and each major from each province), and to abolish job assignment plans. This same set of reforms was extended in the autumn of 1989 to 36 institutions administered directly by the State Education Commission. The freshmen class in 1997 was the first to pay for their own college education and find jobs for themselves upon graduation through a "two-way selection," meaning both employers and college graduates can decide with whom they want to work without the interfering of the process from the party officials. At provincial and local levels, graduates were almost always expected to return to the place they had come from, though they were sometimes able to move to a slightly better location or situation. But for students who fail to find a work unit within the choices given them by the plan, the school must make the assignment as before. The state employment plan is used to place only a minority of China's college students as necessary for the hard-to-fill occupational quotas.
The main argument against the free-market approach to job placement was that only when the government can guarantee fair competition in the job market should the job assignment system be abandoned. Without a legal guarantee, the best opportunities are reserved for male students from big cities whose parents have many well-connected friends and relations. Other concerns include that the employers in remote and backward regions do not receive much needed graduates and that there are not enough opportunities waiting each year for all the graduates. The lack of attractive job openings generated a low student morale that became increasingly evident on many campuses. There even arose the feeling that "study is useless."
Deng Xiaoping's Open Door policy has brought an unprecedented exodus of both faculty and students to Western countries. The resulting increase in educational, scientific, and commercial contacts with the outside world brought China closer to its long-held goal of acquiring world-wide scientific and technical knowledge through Western educational institutions. From 1978 to 1998, some 147,000 students went abroad to study in Western institutions. China's "going abroad fever" is likely to continue. In academic year 1999-2000, there were 54,466 Chinese students in the United States, topping the number of any nationality of foreign students in that country.
On the other hand, with the unparalleled number of China's brightest students leaving the country, the government soon faced a "brain-drain" dilemma. Only 53,040 students, or less than 36 percent of those who left, eventually returned. To counter the "brain-drain" problem, Chinese officials have introduced specific regulations since the mid-1980s. First, Chinese students are supposed to work for a specified period at home before going abroad for further study. Any violators of the rule are punished financially. For example, a college graduate must work in China for five years before going abroad. Anybody who wants to leave China earlier must turn in money to the state, about 5,000 yuan for a year. A graduate student (MA degree holder) must serve three years before leaving China. For every unfulfilled year, the student needs to pay 6,000 to 7,000 yuan to the state. Second, in terms of visa restrictions, all state-sponsored students went to the United States on the more restrictive "J" visas. Upon completion of their studies, U.S. rules require such visa holders to return to their home countries for at least two years before being eligible to work in the United States. Third, all visa-extension requests must be forwarded to the State Education Commission; the U.S. Embassy in Beijing will not grant an extension without the Commission's approval. Finally, all students are required to sign contractual agreements with their Chinese employers before leaving China. These agreements should specify obligations on both sides, including what the employer needs and what the student will study, the posting of bonds, the guarantor's signature, and compensation if the student failed to return on schedule.
Visiting scholars, on the other hand, differ greatly in background from students that study abroad. In terms of their backgrounds, the vast majority of visiting scholars have been teaching at universities, although a significant percentage have been from government institutions. Visiting scholars make up the largest percentage of Chinese exchange visitors. They do not go abroad to enroll in specific degree programs but rather to conduct research and study on their own. In general, they must have an established reputation in China or a relatively long and successful academic career or research experience when selected for the program. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese government has implemented a new policy to ensure the return of visiting scholars; basically, before leaving China they need to turn in a huge amount of money, about 100,000 yuan, to the government as a deposit. Upon their return to China, the money will be returned to them in full plus the interest earned during the period. Also, visiting scholars' decisions are linked to their colleagues' chances of going abroad. If one does not return, one's colleagues cannot go abroad. Besides the strict government policy and the pressures from colleagues, the possibilities for further professional development and for putting to use the new areas of knowledge acquired abroad motivate visiting scholars to go back to China. Usually, visiting scholars tend to be much older than students and, unlike students, have a high returning rate. Visiting scholars have been funded by both Western and Chinese sources. Studying abroad can be a significant turning point in Chinese professionals' lives, and it has opened up areas of research and teaching that would otherwise have been impossible.
With the crackdown of the student movement in June 1989, many graduate students abroad decided not to return. The outrage in the West over Chinese government action in the violent suppression of the students has led to several countries granting permanent residency to Chinese citizens. Even though it is more difficult for older visiting scholars to establish professional careers abroad, some of them have also decided not to return.
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