CHINA> Focus
Blazing the trail for private universities in China
By Lu Hongyan (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-01-07 11:56

XI'AN -- Xi'an Fanyi University has blazed a trail in China's education through its pioneering, innovative educational style, large number of boarding students and high graduate employment rate.

Construction of the university in Xi'an, capital of 13 feudal dynasties, started in 1985 after the approval of the Shaanxi Provincial Education Bureau.

It opened its door to students two years later. Starting from scratch, the university has grown into a large and noted institute of higher learning that has graduated about 70,000 students.

The university has won accolades as one of the country's best private universities and the university with the best image in the sector.

It is rated by China's authoritative organizations as one of the top 10 private universities in the country.

Ding Zuyi, president of the university, credits the success to the university's vision. He said the original motive for starting the school was to offer opportunities to high school graduates who failed to enter State-owned colleges and universities.

In the late 1980s competition for a place at universities and colleges in the nation was so intense that about two million high school graduates were unable to go on higher education each year.

The students wanted to find an alternative to continue their education, which they believed would be a better way to develop a career. So Xi'an Fanyi University was founded.

Ding said his idea of establishing the school came from his own challenges in life.

He excelled at high school in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu province, more than 40 years ago, but was rejected by universities and colleges because he was deemed a "rightist" when he was 18 years old.

"Later I became a teacher after years of self-study. As a teacher, my sympathy always went out to those who failed to enter universities and colleges for different reasons," Ding said.

Yet he said catering to students who have missed other opportunities does mean that his university has lowered its standards.

The university has raised standards for recruiting students in recent years and higher entrance examination marks are now required.

At present, about 20 percent of students who pass the admission process set by State-owned universities and colleges are still rejected for various reasons.

"They are actually very good students and are my university's top choices," Ding said.

He compared these students to water heated to 80 C. "What we need to do is to add some firewood to make them boil," he said.

Ding said what makes him most proud of is that Xi'an Fanyi University has pioneered an innovative and strict educational style that offers full-time schooling and semi-military management - which might seemed a bit outdated in an age of openness.

But he notes that discipline is desirable to parents because it brings them hope that it will enable their children to better focus on their studies.

Many of the university's graduates have also said it prepared them for the strict requirements of their employers.

In recent years, presidents of noted universities and colleges in the United States and the United Kingdom have visited the university. Impressed with its potential, they have signed some co-operation agreements with the university.

One American university offered three full scholarships each with a value of $44,000, to the students from the Xi'an Fanyi University.

In 2002, presidents and professors of 23 universities in the US and UK visited the university and signed agreements.

Since its founding, Fanyi has attracted nearly 100 diplomats.

Darrell Jenks, director of the American Center for Educational Exchange of the US Embassy in China, said he had been involved in educational exchanges for many years, and that he was attracted by Fanyi University because it was a quality private institution.

He said many famed institutions of higher learning in the US are private. Only about 40 percent of the universities and colleges in the US are publicly funded, he said.

Jenks's parents were educators in private universities, and he felt comfortable in such a private institution, he said.

He said he heard of Fanyi University and its president Ding Zuyi many times and was impressed by the university's achievements over the years.

When he visited the school in 2005, some 60,000 students had by then graduated, more than 1,000 of whom were working overseas. Every institution of higher learning in the world would be proud of such achievements, he said.

Catalina Nicolae, the first secretary and cultural counselor of the Romanian Embassy in China, said she enjoyed visiting Fanyi and meeting its students.

She added that the university was one of the best private higher learning institutions in China she has seen and she would help build a bridge for the university to establish cooperative ties with any school in Romania.

While talking with students in the university, she was amazed at their mastery of the English language.

Nicolae said that their English was so fluent that it was better than that of some students in Europe.

In fact the name of the university - fanyi means translation or interpretation in Chinese - could lead people to think it specializes in foreign language teaching.

In fact, the university is multi-disciplinary. In addition to foreign language studies, the university offers courses on tourism management, secretarial training, international economics and trade, law, journalism, business administration, home decoration, computer-aided information management, computer networking technology, e-business, telecommunications and electronics.

President Ding's dream is to build his university into the "Harvard University of the East."

"Some say that I am arrogant to say so. Harvard is one of the top universities in the world, and Chinese universities have very far to go to be on a par with it," he said.

"What I mean of creating the 'Harvard University of the East' is that Xi'an Fanyi University, as well as other private higher learning institutions in China, should be confident enough to try to reach world-class standards," he said.

Ding said his confidence stems from the 3,000-year-old history of Chinese private education.

With Confucius as the inspiration, private education in China has a long track record. In modern times, it has started anew.

"Harvard University's reputation has grown over more than 300 years," Ding said. "Xi'an Fanyi University is only 20 years old, and the history of the newly developed private education sector after the founding of new China in 1949 is less than 30 years. That is the difference.

"But I believe through the efforts of several generations, the dream of creating a world-class institution is likely to come true," he said.

In July 2002, Ding visited Harvard to hear first-hand experiences from the world-class university he dreams of emulating.

Since 1996, he has advocated his ideas about education on various occasions. He has attended numerous domestic and international academic forums to share his methods with educators and experts. His articles and papers have been published in dozens of academic journals and the media.

Ding believes that as the State's policy towards private education becomes more favorable, the sector of private education will witness more rapid development. His university and others like it should grasp the golden opportunity to become stronger with higher achievements, he said.