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Open university and open access

By Li Xinran | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-27 07:55
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University students and graduates have different opinions about whether university campuses should grant full access to the public. [Photo/VCG]

Explore the evolving debate on university openness in China, where students, alumni, and society weigh in on access, security, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Zhang Chenhui finds great delight in exploring universities whenever she has the opportunity. "Universities are like the distinguished calling cards of a city," she said. "Much like museums, universities don't need to do anything to attract you. It's a magnetic pull fueled by their historical legacy and distinctive academic culture. A visit is not just a visual experience — it leaves you contemplative and enriched."

At the age of 29, Zhang holds both her bachelor's and master's degrees from Tianjin University. She remembers that when she was still a student there, the university was fully accessible to the public. She often saw residents from nearby communities walking through the campus, becoming a part of its vibrant atmosphere.

According to her, the university is also famous for its begonia festival that usually falls around the Tomb Sweeping Day in April, drawing numerous tourists every year.

Similar to many universities in China, Tianjin University faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, implementing lockdown measures. Currently, it has reopened its doors to the public by appointment, and the begonia festival has also been resumed this year.

However, a lingering question persists: should universities revert to their pre-pandemic openness? After all, these institutions have long transcended their core role as educational establishments, said Li Yunzhen, a postgraduate from Wuhan University in Hubei province, and now works at a semiconductor company in Shenzhen.

"Public universities are public properties; therefore, they are not only derived from society but are also integral parts of it. Consequently, they should give back to the society by remaining accessible both physically and academically," said the 30-year-old, who regards himself as a "fervent advocate" for the openness of universities.

But he agrees that it should be up to the schools to decide how and when to open up.

"All freedoms carry responsibilities and should be exercised judiciously. Schools ought to make policies that strike a balance among the interests of various stakeholders based on their mission," he said.

Li pointed out that many people advocate for the openness of universities, but these opinions typically originate from external sources. He believes that there are four primary stakeholders in the discourse on opening up university gates: the students and faculty, the school authority, the residents living on campus, and the broader public. Navigating the decision-making process among these parties is a complex endeavor.

Yang Jianyi belongs to the first category of stakeholders as defined by Li.

At 20 years old, Yang is a junior at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Expressing her appreciation for the university, she said, "My favorite thing about BFSU is our campus culture, open and free. Around here, we can dress freely and love freely."

Ever since the pandemic ended, BFSU has opened up its gates to the public through an appointment system. As of Dec 11, the general public can enter the campus simply by swiping their ID cards without the need for prior scheduling.

But Yang does have concerns. "We have a lot of female students in our school, and that makes us worry about the possibility of bad people getting in. It's also concerning to leave valuable stuff like laptops in classrooms. But these worries could be worked out by the school's administration and the student body," she said.

Indeed, security has long been a paramount concern for universities, and this holds true for WHU, too. According to Li, even before the pandemic, the university maintained a policy of limited public access, allowing entry only by appointment. "I graduated in 2019, as far as I know, our school has been employing the appointment system since the advent of smartphones and mini-apps. The institution and its administration have always been responsive to the diverse needs both within and beyond these gates," Li said.

However, to Li, the restricted access to the campus doesn't mean a lack of openness. "At Wuhan University, whether one is a teacher, student, or staff member, we all feel that we can flourish and evolve freely within this academic environment," he said. "As a 130-year-old distinguished institution, the university has been a pioneer in higher education and has been making changes that truly benefit and show respect for students and faculty alike."

Yang said that she is not opposed to the idea of greater openness, despite her initial reluctance. "I do realize that I enjoy a lot of privileges as a student, particularly in terms of access to online databases and offline resources. But I'm also aware of the fact that I will eventually graduate and become a member of society beyond these gates," she said. "With that thought, I think it's best to foster more openness."

As for Geng Haohan, a 28-year-old lawyer in Beijing, universities, aside from their cultural and alumni significance, play a crucial role as hubs for ongoing education.

"As lawyers, no matter the degree you have obtained, you have to continue to learn so that you remain informed about emerging fields and policies," she said.

In June, Geng participated in a weeklong entertainment law course at Peking University, an experience she found valuable. "The professors were all seasoned and taught us substantial and informative knowledge without holding back," she said. "They also invited former representatives from the legal affairs office of big companies like Disney and Huayi Brothers."

Geng felt that in the past, for her, there was a mythical aura surrounding Peking University, but it revolved solely around its prestigious title. "Now my fascination is rooted in the institution's robust academic teachings. And it's something that I could only come to appreciate after experiencing it firsthand."

However, Geng said, there is no lawful obligation for universities to open their gates to the public from a legal standpoint.

"Although personally I do have the need for further education, I maintain a neutral stance on the issue," she said. "If there is a growing demand for greater accessibility, universities would likely consider and respond to such calls. But the decision to open up should rest with the institutions themselves, allowing them to implement measures that safeguard the interests of both students and society."

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