See all those languages up there? We translate Global Voices stories to make the world's citizen media available to everyone.

Learn more about Lingua Translation  »

China Has a Few Walls to Climb If It Wants World-Class Universities

Peking University's West Gate. Photo by Flickr user: Amy CC: NC-AT

Peking University's West Gate. Photo by Flickr user Amy. CC: NC-AT

In China, it is quite common to see a flock of tourists taking “selfies” in front of the gate of well-known universities. To them, it's almost like a pilgrimage, a precious chance to associate themselves with one of nation’s most famous institutions of higher learning.

The enormous number of visitors has compelled some universities to impose limits on tourists during the summer holiday. Xiamen University, a leading Chinese university, is one of them, and it found itself in the spotlight after a recent visit by veteran Chinese columnist Jia Jia, who ended up literally climbing over the university's wall to gain access.

Jia stoked debate about the openness of Chinese universities, which further evolved into discussion on university reform in a response to a document issued by China’s State Council, vowing to build a group of world-class universities by 2020.

‘Like a concentration camp’

At the gate of Xiamen University, Jia was barred from entering because of the limitations on the number of daily tourists. He was then ushered over to a nearby fence by a 60-year-old nanny, who told him that he could spend 20 yuan to cross the fence with a ladder:

我一边翻梯子一边在想,我去过几百所国内外的大学,这是第一次以“非法”手段翻墙进入一所大学——一所中国一流大学。

I was climbing the ladder while thinking, I’ve been to hundreds of domestic and foreign universities, but this is the first I've had to use the “illegal” method of climbing over the wall to enter a university, and a first-class Chinese one at that.

Jia described the management of domestic universities as resembling concentration camps, which goes against the values of openness that a university should stand for:

而我们的许多大学,围墙高耸,门禁森严,学生教师出入查证,校外人员要么不让进,要么登记身份证。这种类似集中营的管理模式始自北京的非典期间的封校,后来当作常态被继承下来。我当然知道,一些著名高校尤其是风景优美的高校比如北大、武大、厦大这样的,校外人员把校园当公园,给学校的管理乃至教学带来了一定困扰,但真的只有限流登记这种管理手段吗?

Many of our universities are highly fenced and strictly guarded. Students and lecturers need to be verified before entry into the campus, but off-campus people are banned or have to register their ID card number to get access. This managerial style, like a concentration camp, was imposed when SARS began spreading throughout Beijing and has continued to present day. Certainly I’ve known that some famous universities, especially Peking, Wuhan and Xiamen universities, have the picturesque scenery, but non-affiliated people consider campuses to be parks. These acts have plagued management and professors at some level, but is this the only way to limit daily tourists?

Not everyone agreed with Jia. One netizen believed visitor management is a necessary measure:

也不看看节假日厦大挤成什么样,游客多了学生连饭都没得吃,有时候在自习、上课和午休都会被影响到。一篇文章下来丝毫没看到站在学生和学校角度换位思考下,就知道乱喷!大学要开放是没错,游客那么多校方也是无奈之举。我去年暑假去厦大玩排了十几分钟的队伍刷身份证进去,但我理解并支持校方的做法。

[You] should take a look at how squeezed Xiamen University is during the holiday: too many tourists occupy the cafeteria where students cannot eat; tourists sometimes interrupt students’ self-study, classes or noontime nap. This article did not take into consideration the students or the university at all. Bullshit! The university being open is okay, but it has no choice but to limit so many tourists. Last summer I went to Xiamen University where I spent over 10 minutes verifying my ID card to enter, but I understand and support the measure.

But cultural scholar Yang Zao’s article echoed Jia’s view:

至于一面限流,一面黄牛盛行,“给我20块,带你进大学”,实在是一所大学的耻辱。这一点我同意贾葭,连这个管理问题都解决不好,要推给中国人多或游客“素质”的高校,确实不配自称一流大学。如果做不到全面封闭,就不要在校门搞什么限流。

It is indeed a shame for a university that daily tourists are being restricted while [off-campus] touts are saying, “Give me 20 yuan, I will bring you into the university.” I agree with Jia that if the university uses too many Chinese or bad-mannered tourists as excuses, it is not worth the title of a first-class university. If the university cannot fence its campus off completely, it shouldn’t limit the number of daily tourists.

‘The truth is borderless’

Jia's experience climbing over the wall is very much a satirical allegory of the “closed door” policy of Chinese universities. What worried Jia was the Chinese government's stress on the development of domestic universities with Chinese characteristics, which is the guiding principle of the State Council document promising to build a group of world-class universities by 2020:

我担心一旦提出“有中国特色”的一流大学标准,那么会变得没有真正的标准。因为中国特色是不能对外比的。举例说,中国之外的世界,没有任何一个一流大学图书馆编目或者馆藏上架排在“A”字母下的是马列原著。这是中国特色,改还是不改呢?[…]大学最重要的功能是提供真理,而真理是没有国界的。除非我们认为真理有两种:真理以及中国真理。

I am worried that if “Chinese characteristics” become a criteria for top-grade universities, it will rule out all other criteria. “Chinese characteristics” implies that we can't compare with others. For example, the library category system in China places Marxist and Leninist book under “A”. Should we change such a Chinese characteristic? […] University is a place to search for the truth, and the truth is borderless. Unless we believe that there are two kinds of truth: truth and Chinese truth.

Under the current education system, universities in China are under the dual power structure of an administration managed by the school president, who is led by the Chinese Communist Party secretary. The bureaucracy is huge, which oftentimes interferes with academic development.

In a recent interview with party mouthpiece People’s Daily on the challenge of education reform to make local universities meet “world-class” standards as set by the newly released government document, Wang Feng, director of the research office for the educational system reform to the Ministry of Education, presented two cruxes of reform:

高校行政化有两方面问题,一是政府把高校当做下属单位,按照行政管理的规则和要求管理高等学校,高校就不可能真正落实办学自主权。二是高校内部沿用官僚行政机构的管理方式,动辄请示汇报审批文件传达,与学术发展运行规律背道而驰。

There are two issues of administration in higher education: First, the government sees universities as its subordinate departments, and regulates universities according to administrative regulations, so universities cannot develop in their own ways. Second, universities use the management of bureaucratic administrative institutes, and have to submit to the higher authorities for examination and approval, which go against the nature of academic development.

Jia believed that education reform should get back to the very basics of the spirit of university:

大概就是北大百年校庆之后,国内的其他大学如南京大学、复旦大学、兰州大学、清华大学先后也都迎来百年校庆,过去十年,大学精神在中国大陆被广泛讨论,还有出了专著评职称的,也有办了网站搞大学排名赚钱的,但始终没能弄清楚,我们的大学为什么与世界一流大学的差距那么大?或者说,根本没有搞明白,大学到底应该怎么办?即便刨去那些明显不可讨论的政治因素,中国大学改革的空间仍然很大。

In the wake of centenary celebration of Peking University, other universities such as Nanjing University, Fudan University, Lanzhou University and Tsinghua University all celebrated their centenary. During the past ten years, the spirit of university was discussed nationwide. [Some people] focus on earning academic titles, some focus on building websites that provide university ranking service. But there is something unclear—why is there a huge gap between our universities and world-class ones? In other words, it never being clear–how on earth to develop an university? Put aside those unspoken political factors, there is a large space for reform in Chinese universities.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices
Email Frequency



No thanks, show me the site