Higher education reflects the changes in political policies that have occurred in contemporary China. Since 1949 emphasis has continually been placed on political re-education, and in periods of political upheaval, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, ideology has been stressed over professional or technical competence. During the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of college students joined Red Guard organizations, effectively closing down the higher education system. In general, when universities reopened in the early 1970s, enrollments were reduced from pre-Cultural Revolution levels, and admission was restricted to individuals who had been recommended by their work unit (danwei) possessed good political credentials, and had distinguished themselves in manual labor. In the absence of stringent and reasonably objective entrance examinations, political connections became increasingly important in securing the recommendations and political dossiers necessary to qualify for university admission. As a result, the decline in educational quality was profound. Deng Xiaoping reportedly wrote Mao Zedong in 1975 that university graduates were "not even capable of reading a book" in their own fields when they left the university. University faculty and administrators, moreover, were demoralized by what they faced.
Efforts made in 1975 to improve educational quality were unsuccessful. By 1980 it appeared doubtful that the politically oriented admission criteria had accomplished even the purpose of increasing enrollment of worker and peasant children. Successful candidates for university entrance were usually children of cadres and officials who used personal connections that allowed them to "enter through the back door." Students from officials' families would accept the requisite minimum two year work assignment in the countryside, often in a suburban location that allowed them to remain close to their families. Village cadres, anxious to please the parent-official, gladly recommended these youths for university placement after the labor requirement had been met. The child of an official family was then on his or her way to a university without having academic ability, a record of political activism, or a distinguished work record.
After 1976 steps were taken to improve educational quality by establishing order and stability, and calling for an end to political contention on university campuses, and expanding university enrollments. This pressure to maintain quality and minimize expenditures led to efforts both to run existing institutions more efficiently and to develop other college and university programs. As a result, labor colleges for training agro-technicians and factory-run colleges for providing technical education for workers were established. In addition, eighty-eight institutions and key universities were provided with special funding, top students and faculty members, and other support, and they recruited the most academically qualified students without regard to family background or political activism.
Many of the problems that had hindered higher educational development in the past continued in 1987. Funding remained a major problem because science and technology study and research and study abroad were expensive. Because education was competing with other modernization programs, capital was critically short. Another concern was whether or not the Chinese economy was sufficiently advanced to make efficient use of the highly trained technical personnel it planned to educate. For example, some observers believed that it would be more realistic to train a literate work force of low-level technicians instead of than research scientists. Moreover, it was feared that using an examination to recruit the most able students might advance people who were merely good at taking examinations. Educational reforms also made some people uncomfortable by criticizing the traditional practice of rote memorization and promoting innovative teaching and study methods.
The prestige associated with higher education caused a demand for it. But many qualified youths were unable to attend colleges and universities because China could not finance enough university places for them. To help meet the demand and to educate a highly trained, specialized work force, China established alternate forms of higher education--such as spare-time, part-time, and radio and television universities.
China cannot afford a heavy investment, either ideologically or financially, in the education of a few students. Since 1978 China's leaders have modified the policy of concentrating education resources at the university level, which, although designed to facilitate modernization, conflicted directly with the party's principles. The policies that produced an educated elite also siphoned off resources that might have been used to accomplish the compulsory nine year education more speedily and to equalize educational opportunities in the city and the countryside. The policy of key schools has been modified over the years. Nevertheless, China's leaders believe an educated elite is necessary to reach modernization goals.
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