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Background Higher Education in the People's Republic of China

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:: Background Higher Education in the People's Republic of China

Higher education reflected the changes in political policies that have occurred in contemporary China. Since 1949 emphasis has continually been placed on political re-education, and in periods of political upheaval, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, ideology has been stressed over professional or technical competence. During the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of college students joined Red Guard organizations, effectively closing down the higher education system. In general, when universities reopened in the early 1970s, enrollments were reduced from pre-Cultural Revolution levels, and admission was restricted to individuals who had been recommended by their work unit (danwei) possessed good political credentials, and had distinguished themselves in manual labor. In the absence of stringent and reasonably objective entrance examinations, political connections became increasingly important in securing the recommendations and political dossiers necessary to qualify for university admission. As a result, the decline in educational quality was profound. Deng Xiaoping reportedly wrote Mao Zedong in 1975 that university graduates were "not even capable of reading a book" in their own fields when they left the university. University faculty and administrators, moreover, were demoralized by what they faced.

Efforts made in 1975 to improve educational quality were unsuccessful. By 1980 it appeared doubtful that the politically oriented admission criteria had accomplished even the purpose of increasing enrollment of worker and peasant children. Successful candidates for university entrance were usually children of cadres and officials who used personal connections that allowed them to "enter through the back door." Students from officials' families would accept the requisite minimum two year work assignment in the countryside, often in a suburban location that allowed them to remain close to their families. Village cadres, anxious to please the parent-official, gladly recommended these youths for university placement after the labor requirement had been met. The child of an official family was then on his or her way to a university without having academic ability, a record of political activism, or a distinguished work record.

After 1976 steps were taken to improve educational quality by establishing order and stability, and calling for an end to political contention on university campuses, and expanding university enrollments. This pressure to maintain quality and minimize expenditures led to efforts both to run existing institutions more efficiently and to develop other college and university programs. As a result, labor colleges for training agro-technicians and factory-run colleges for providing technical education for workers were established. In addition, eighty-eight institutions and key universities were provided with special funding, top students and faculty members, and other support, and they recruited the most academically qualified students without regard to family background or political activism.