Interview with the President of Peking University Our Students 'Are the Best from Each Province'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, Xu Zhihong, the president of Peking University, discusses the state of China's higher education system and the challenges of the mass growth of universities and shifting professional needs.

SPIEGEL: More than 200 students from Germany attended your university last year. Did they come just to learn Chinese?

Xu: Not only. They are also attending classes in the faculties of Chinese history, law, economics and politics.

SPIEGEL: China’s political and economic role in the world is growing all the time. But how is China's higher education developing? If you were to compare the quality of your university with institutes of higher education in other parts of the world, where would you stand?

Xu: It is difficult to compare universities because the standards are so different. But according to a survey conducted by the University of Chicago between 1999 and 2003 of foreign baccalaureate-origin institutions that non-American students attended before receiving doctorate degrees in the United States, Beijing University ranks the second in the world after Seoul National University. During that period, more than 1,600 undergraduate students from Peking University obtained research doctorates awarded by American universities. In China last year there were 9 million high school graduates who wanted to study; 5.4 million were accepted by universities and colleges. Peking University, however, recruits only 3,000 freshmen. They are the best from each province.

SPIEGEL: Critics say the teaching methods at Chinese universities are more like those of a school than a university. They claim there is little room for discussion and that little is done to encourage creativity. Are they right?

Xu: It is true that a lot of people are very concerned about the Chinese educational system. Because of the rapid changes in our economy and society, and progress in the areas of science and technology, we need graduates who are able to survive the fierce competition, to meet our society's diverse requirements. That is exactly the reason why we are reforming our curriculum.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean in concrete terms?

Xu: The students are not only encouraged but also required to spread out their interests to different subjects. All freshmen at our university, including the students of humanities are, for example, required to take mathematics. The aim is to improve their logical thinking abilities. Technicians and natural scientists, on the other hand, have to attend some classes in the humanities and art. Years ago, Peking University initiated a new undergraduate program under which students receive a liberal arts education during their first and second years before proceeding with their majors.

SPIEGEL: How strong is the influence of the Chinese Communist Party at your university?

Xu: Our constitution dictates that the Communist Party play the leading role in our country. Our party secretary is a scholar in the field of education. He studied at Stanford University. Important decisions are made not only in his presence, but rather in a bigger committee. The party chief supports me in my work. The heads of Chinese universities have many more tasks to shoulder than their colleagues in Western countries. For example, we have to provide our staff with daycare centers, schools, hospitals and apartments.

SPIEGEL: Does the Communist Party control teaching and research?

Xu: It depends what you mean by "control." In China, the Party takes care that policies like reform and opening-up are implemented at universities and colleges. In regard to teaching and research, the executive vice-president (a role that is the same as a provost) is responsible for all academic issues.

SPIEGEL: Is it true that students can still study Marxism-Leninism at your university?

Xu: Of course. Marxism is one of the most important political and economic theories of the 20th century, not only in China, but also in the world. We have faculties of Marxism, political sciences, religion, Chinese philosophy, etc. Professors of social sciences have to study Marxism if they want to really understand China.

SPIEGEL: Are younger students required to go through ideological training?

Xu: Yes. Students are supposed to take courses in Chinese modern history, Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought, contemporary Chinese and international political and economic policy, ethics and other topics. Some are elective courses.

SPIEGEL: Would you kick out a mathematics student who failed a course in the teachings of Mao Zedong?

Xu: No, the student can repeat the test six months later. But these cases are very rare. In the years since I became president of Peking University, I have never experienced that.

SPIEGEL: Completing a higher education in China is an expensive proposition. Indeed, many young people can't afford the tuition fees that universities charge. What steps are you taking to address this problem?

Xu: The government takes actions to assist the impoverished students. They can apply for government-sponsored student loans, scholarships and bursaries. But I personally think we should spend more money on schools and universities. Last year our total education budget was only 2.8 percent of GDP.

SPIEGEL: ... which is not very much compared to the international standard ...

Xu: It is very small. It should be 4 percent, but up until now we haven't met this target.

SPIEGEL: Critics say one of the biggest weaknesses of the Chinese education system is the rigid examination system. For young people it becomes the most important thing in their life to pass the tests -- and this intense focus keeps them from developing their abilities to their fullest.

Xu: That’s right. But to solve China’s education problems it is more important right now to increase the budget for academic institutions in order to improve the overall quality of our universities. If we had 20 or 30 first-class universities like Peking University or Tsinghua University, the situation would look a lot different.

SPIEGEL: Only a small percentage of young people attend universities in China. Why?

Xu: Ten years ago only 9 percent of the applicants were accepted by universities and colleges. Now the rate is 22 percent. That’s already huge progress. But now we're encountering another problem: We don't have enough highly qualified professors and teachers to meet the needs of so many students. This is an especially serious problem for schools in the provinces.

SPIEGEL: Are graduates having trouble getting jobs?

Xu: There is no problem for our graduates, of course. But in fact there are difficulties in some local universities. Many graduates, however, are unable to get jobs because they are unwilling to relocate and work in faraway provinces like Xinjiang or Qinghai, where salaries are lower than they are in Beijing or Shanghai and living conditions are not as good as in the coastal areas.

SPIEGEL: Do young people fail to find a job because they study subjects for which there is too little demand on the job market?

Xu: This is one of the reasons. Because of the quick expansion of the universities, people often do not realize which professions are most in demand. For example, at the moment we need more highly qualified blue-collar workers and experienced technicians.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Andreas Lorenz.

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