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University heads in spotlight as China cracks down on graft

Publication Date : 03-01-2014


China's anti-corruption investigators, more used to uncovering graft cases in the government and state-owned enterprises, have hit an unlikely lode: the tertiary education sector.

The past year has seen 11 senior officials - including principals, who are known as presidents here - at leading universities being sacked and investigated for misdeeds, mostly corruption.

The latest was professor Chu Jian, vice-president of the prestigious Zhejiang University, who lost his job over Christmas.

Others include Sichuan University vice-president An Xiaoyu and Nanchang Aviation University party secretary Wang Guoyan, who were investigated last month and last August respectively.

Education expert Tang Anguo said university corruption is not a new trend in China although the high number of cases in the past year is unusual. He said the key reason is the intensifying anti-graft campaign launched by President Xi Jinping in December 2011 that has netted nearly 20 ministerial-level officials.

"Many people think universities are sacred grounds immune to corruption because professors and intellectuals work here," said Professor Tang of the East China Normal University.

"They can't be more wrong. Where there is lack of transparency and checks on powers, there is bound to be corruption."

Tang said college corruption began surfacing in the 1990s when China ramped up the construction of universities, which opened doors for graft. For instance, contracts were often awarded without proper tenders.

About 80 per cent of the cases exposed in the past year involved construction of facilities or expansion of campus grounds.

Another area is student enrolment. While universities are allocated students based on the latter's results in the national entrance examination, they are allowed to select a small number of students through their own tests.

Said Prof Tang: "The scheme was originally aimed at allowing schools to admit students with special skills, like in sports or music. But it has been misused by some schools granting places to those whose parents offer bribes or to officials pursuing postgraduate studies."

With limited capacity and massive demand for tertiary education, prices for places have spiked over the years, to as high as one million yuan (S$209,000) at top universities.

A third area is the misuse of funds allocated by the central government for research and innovation projects. In March last year, Zhejiang University professor Chen Yingxu stood trial for embezzling more than 10 million yuan in research funding by fabricating receipts and contracts.

Analysts say corruption in universities has far-reaching impact on society and deserves more attention from the authorities.

"It may even have a negative influence on the students' own values because university is a crucial time when many learn their values for life," Professor Guo Yong of Tsinghua University told Xinhua news agency recently.

Education expert Cheng Fangping told The Straits Times that academic corruption could dent China's bid to build world-class universities and increase the brain drain as parents choose to send their children overseas.

To tackle the problem, analysts say, the top task is to beef up supervision of top university officials and to make the tender and student admission processes more transparent.

Yang Nan, 46, a manager in Tianjin city, is worried about the graft cases' impact on her 16-year-old daughter's chances of entering top schools next year.

"I believe the government is focusing more on this issue, in light of the number of cases exposed in the past year. I hope they will work hard at eradicating such behaviour in schools," she said.



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