The purpose and function of university education has been a highly debatable topic both in the East and the West. In China, people strongly believe that education is a route to success and in the past few years, the number of university students has increased rapidly. However, as the problem of university graduate unemployment keeps elevating since the financial tsunami hit the continent early this year, there are more expectations for the universities to provide practical and vocational training rather than research skill and exploration of knowledge. This month a heated debate emerged online when the journalism department of Sichuan University decided to cancel the requirement of writing a graduate thesis, or an extensive research essay, for university students to get their degree. Instead, graduation would be conditioned on the quality of articles and commentaries published by undergraduates on newspapers.
The head of the journalism department explained the decision:
Thesis writing requires having insights and findings in a particular field. But just think about it: is it realistic to expect an undergraduate to have new ideas on the theories or histories of journalism? To fulfill the requirements, students can only copy and paste; we are pushing students onto the path of plagiarism.
The journalism sector likes to mock with with this joke: “undergraduates know which year The Times was founded; masters know which month; PhDs know which date.” This sarcastic story reflects that our university education is detached from reality and not practical at all.
This decision has sparked a heated debate online.
盛大林 supported the claim that undergraduates are not equipped with the ability to write thesis:
A thesis is a research paper on a problem. That means “research” is the pre-condition for writing an essay. However, what “research” can an undergraduate do?
对于本科生而言，他们的任务就 是系统地学习本专业的基础知识或基本技能。可以说，本科生既不具备研究所必须的知识基础或实践经验，教学大纲中也没有研究方面的安排。既然没有“研究”， 怎么撰写“论文”？
For undergraduates, their task is to master the field’s fundamental knowledge or skills in a systematic way. We can say that undergraduates are not equipped with the knowledge or practical experience to conduct research; the curriculum has not include research method. How can a student write a “thesis” without “research”?
乐透 directly addresses the top concern facing undergraduates – securing employment – and the fact that writing a thesis is completely detached to this reality:
As a fourth-year undergraduate, I know what students are doing. They can be classified into several types: applying to be postgraduates, applying to be civil servants or applying for other jobs. Those strong enough can do these three together. But no matter what, all students need to produce a graduate thesis. This rule has been in place for many years, but its quality and effectiveness is declining.
The value of a university student would not be reflected in a meaningless thesis. They need more practice, training or even real social experience in order to develop enter the social realities.
However, 周育民 disagrees with the decision and values the training of thesis writing:
Teaching students to write a thesis is an educational aim in itself. It is to teach students the process of discovering, analyzing and solving a problem, and expressing this thought process in the format of an academic thesis. Only by having these abilities can a student fulfills the requirement of a bachelor’s degree. The quality of the thesis is not a major consideration.
As we enter the information age, the requirements on the quality of our labour are increasing. This is also one of the reasons why university education is more popular. Training students the ability to think in a complex way by utilizing the knowledge acquired should be the basic aim of our higher education.
Finally, 朱四倍 criticizes the over-emphasis on the utility of education:
I do not agree with the viewpoint that professional based and applied science universities can cancel the requirement of graduate thesis, while research-intensive universities can keep it. It is an excuse of being irresponsible.
University is a place for advanced studies of knowledge, which means nurturing a spirit of liberal research and criticism.
To me, rather than saying that it is an inevitable trend, it shows the utilitarian mentality of universities, students and the society.