Cut college red tape

(China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-24 07:54
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We do not count on the just unveiled national education reform program for specifics on transforming higher education, as an all-round roadmap, it does not go particularly deep on any topics, there are simply too many educational issues for the reform planners to sort out.

In some ways, the scheme is as specific as it could be - in an inclusive package that takes into account topics from pre-school education to higher learning, and from financing to governance structures - experimental projects have been assigned to provinces and individual schools, category by category.

Yet, there is at least one thing missing - debureaucratization of our colleges. And that is where the roadmap disappoints.

The document promises to reform the way college education is administrated and operated. The desire to formulate a "modern system of higher education" is even mentioned. It puts the spotlight on college autonomy, financial and auditing mechanisms, performance appraisal, prevention of academic fraud, and a number of other topics. But, there is no mention whatsoever about the bureaucracy that has developed around institutions of higher learning.

Our institutions of higher learning lag so far behind our needs and expectations that practically any reform would result in positive changes and the current reform program, so long as it is executed to the letter, will certainly bear some fruit. But they will still be superficial changes that will have a limited impact on the overall picture. The country's higher education needs urgent reform to live up to society's practical demand for qualified talent.

What is absent here is strategic insight, something that has been absent in similar recent initiatives. The protracted discourse over the way our colleges are being run has generated a broad consensus that bureaucratization is one, if not the root, cause of the incompetence of institutions of higher learning. There have even been pledges previously from the Ministry of Education to cut higher education bureaucracy. But that inspiring notion seems to have miraculously vanished.

As long as our colleges keep being run as bureaucratic establishments by career bureaucrats, or intellectuals turned bureaucrats, no reform will bring substantial improvements.

The well-respected and reform-minded professor Zhu Qingshi is spearheading a bold experiment on setting up a different kind of university in Shenzhen - one that truly values, and is dedicated to, academic excellence and is free of bureaucratic red tape. Some of the pilot projects the reform plan has identified do involve the province of Guangdong, where the school is located. Yet it is unclear whether professor Zhu's South University of Science and Technology can become what it aspires to be without the support of the national authorities.

It would be great if the national reform package could incorporate, or come up, with specific support for his bold experiment.