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Top Chinese universities face exams for corruption
Publication Date : 23-12-2013
Three years ago, Renmin University of China made national headlines when it became the first college in the country to offer a master's degree in anti-corruption studies.
Last month, the university was in the news again, but for less welcome reasons. Cai Rongsheng, head of student admissions at Renmin - one of China's most prestigious educational establishments - was detained as he attempted to flee the country.
While the investigation into Cai continues, two weeks ago another high-profile figure, An Xiaoyu, vice-president of Sichuan University, the most respected college in southwestern China, was reported to be under investigation following allegations of corruption related to the construction of a new campus.
As China's leaders extend the scope of an anti-corruption campaign that saw Vice-Minister of Public Security Li Dongsheng come under investigation last week, the ivory towers have not proved immune. At least five university presidents have stepped down this year alone after being investigated on corruption charges.
The investigations into university leaders may just be the tip of a corruption iceberg in the education sector and the issue could prove costly for China in the long run, according to experts.
"The problems on the campuses have not been the main focus of anti-corruption work during the past few years, but judging by recent events, the problem is serious. Further cases are very likely to come to light if the investigation is intensified," said Ren Jianming, director of the Clean Governance Research and Education Centre at Beihang University in Beijing.
University officials may be small fry compared with high-ranking officials in government and State-owned enterprises in terms of the money involved, but their corruption is of a type unique to academic institutions - mainly centred around student enrolment and the allocation of research funding - which could have a direct impact by hampering social mobility and slowing the pace of innovation, the experts warned.
In China, gaining admission to a first-tier college can be a life-changing opportunity for students from humble backgrounds, which means misconduct in the admissions process poses a fundamental danger to social justice, said Ren.
"It may even have a negative influence on the students' own values because university is a crucial time, and one during which many of them learn their values for life," said Guo Yong, vice-director of the Clean Governance Research and Education Centre at Tsinghua University.
Not a 'pure land'
Corruption in the universities, like that in government, results from highly centralised power, a lack of transparency and supervision, according to anti-corruption experts.
"People think that university is a 'pure land', but in my opinion, it's not pure at all. Universities are a microcosm of society, so it's impossible to avoid the problems prevalent in society in general and corruption is part of that," said Yuan Guilin, a professor of education at Beijing Normal University.
In China, the presidents of public universities are appointed by the government. By the end of last year, 1,735 of 2,442 presidents were government appointees, those who weren't appointed by the authorities all work at private colleges.
Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education, argued that university presidents should be elected by their peers and the students. Ideally, they should have a good background in teaching and research, which would help create an environment conducive for academics to concentrate on research and study, he said.
"I know a university where four top leaders retired this year. An election was held and four professors took the most votes. However, to many people's surprise, the professors lost out. The four posts were given to administrative staff members directly appointed by the upper level of government. The case had very a bad effect on the morale of the teachers and students," he said.
In many private universities overseas, a board of directors constitutes the highest decision-making body and the president is hired and regulated by a sound supervision mechanism, Yuan noted.
Draining the talent
On a positive note, a highly anticipated and wide ranging reform plan adopted at a key Party meeting last month recognised the need for change in the education sector.
The plan aims to increase the autonomy of universities and improve internal governance. It also will oversee the gradual abolition of the system by which officials in educational and academic institutions are ranked.
Under the existing system, university presidents are allocated specific levels in a political ranking system, one that also applies to government officials and the managers of State-owned enterprises.
For example, the presidents and Party secretaries of more than 30 prestigious universities are ranked at vice-ministerial level and so does the president of the oil giant PetroChina.
University officials, from deans to the heads of student admissions, are ranked accordingly. A higher rank always translates into a louder voice in the decision-making process, including the allocation of research funding.
"When I studied in the UK, people were not eager to become the dean because it meant serving the faculty, and they preferred to focus on their research. But in China, everyone wants to become an official because it leads to control of resources," said He Zengke, a senior researcher
with the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, who studied at two UK universities - Bradford and Nottingham - in 1997 and 1998.
In an 2010 editorial in the magazine Science, Rao Yi, dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University, and his counterpart at Tsinghua University, Shi Yigong, drew attention to widespread corruption and the embezzlement of research funds in China.
Their article was prescient. In March, Chen Yingxu, executive vice-president of the College of Environmental and Resource Sciences at
Zhejiang University, was charged with embezzling 10.22 million yuan ($1.68 million) intended for research funding.
"Many young scholars have great enthusiasm and energy for academic research, but because of their low rankings and their lack of close relationships with the leaders, very few of them receive funding," said a teacher surnamed Lu who works at the School of Computer Science at Jilin University.
Beihang University's Ren said the prevailing culture - which idolises power rather than equality and independence - goes against the spirit of university ideals and helps to explain why "China has probably the best students before college. However, they become less competitive than their foreign counterparts when studying for a bachelor's degree. The situation worsens when they study for master's degrees and doctorates."
"Now we see more Chinese students choosing to study overseas, and foreign establishments, such as New York University, have opened campuses in Shanghai," he said. "The market for education is now global and we have to change."
Few students expressed shock at the recent scandals in the university system.
"I wasn't really surprised when all the news broke. This just mirrors the situation of society as a whole," said Wang Zi, a sophomore majoring in Party history at Renmin University. "We've grown up in this society and we all know what it's like. But of course, I am worried that it will damage the reputation of the university."
Wei Chongzheng is a 21-year-old senior at Nanchang University in Jiangxi province. In May, the university's then president Zhou Wenbin was investigated for alleged corruption relating to infrastructure construction. Although he felt ashamed when the people mentioned the issue, Wei was pleased to see corruption uncovered.
"People say our gate is probably the biggest among all the universities in Asia, and the university always spends a huge amount on fireworks to welcoming freshmen. We used to say that the money spent on every large firework could buy us an air conditioner - we didn't have any in the dorms until this summer," said Wei.
Wei originally enrolled as a major in public administration, but transferred to study psychology after the first year. Although academic interest
was one reason for his change, most public administration majors become public servants after graduating and he dislikes the culture in government bodies, he said.
"Because we are about to graduate, some of my former schoolmates said they would treat me to big meals in five or 10 years, after they've become rich by taking bribes," Wei said.
"That's the paradox: People want to change the system, but they all want to be part of it too."