Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Time to end higher education 'elite cult'

By Chen Xiao (China Daily) Updated: 2014-12-18 09:04

Debates over "985" and "211", two official higher education programs, continue after education authorities decided to "weaken" them instead of canceling them altogether. Introduced in the 1990s, the two programs have been blamed for the inequality in the education system which focuses on selecting "key, brand ... universities" and investing huge amounts in them. Only 112 universities, or 6 percent of the country's total, have been selected for the "211" program, but they get 70 percent of the government's research funds and own 96 percent of the key laboratories.

The programs, to begin with, widen the inequality gap in education among provinces. Of the 31 provinces and municipalities on the Chinese mainland, six are home to more than half of the key universities listed in the programs. For example, Beijing with 20 million permanent residents has 26 of the "211" universities and eight of the "985" universities, while Henan province with a population four times as large has only one of the former and none of the latter.

The two programs widen the education gap further by being favorable to the key universities. Since the education authorities require universities to draft separate enrollment plans for students from different provinces, students in poor, agricultural provinces and minority autonomous regions have less chance of getting into a good university.

This hierarchical policy interferes with the normal development of higher education. Typically, a university has many disciplines, which are further divided into majors that offer better employment prospects for graduates. But the two programs select universities according to the broad disciplines, and hardly consider the majors.

As a result, some universities with promising majors that have good employment prospects were excluded from the programs for lack of research work, for which they lack the needed funds. Some majors of selected key universities actually do not have much market value, but they still get increasing amount of funds and enroll more students.

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