BEIJING — Facing rising criticism over the quality of schools and a crush of jobless college graduates, China’s legislature announced Monday that it had removed the minister of education after six years on the job and replaced him with a deputy.
The minister, Zhou Ji, had become a prime target for critics of China’s education system, which has stumbled during breakneck expansion that was intended to raise literacy rates and build a world-class university system.
His dismissal follows a corruption scandal involving a university in Wuhan, where Mr. Zhou had been mayor and, before that, president of another university. Mr. Zhou has not been publicly linked to the corruption charges, which remain under investigation.
The government-run Chinese-language press reported Mr. Zhou’s removal on Monday largely without comment in summarizing the work of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, the legislature whose delegates are largely elected by Communist Party leaders and the military.
Mr. Zhou’s dismissal was described more fully in an official English-language newspaper, China Daily, which said the education system had been “plagued with problems, such as underfunding of primary and secondary schools and poor standards in higher education.”
Many of those problems arose well before Mr. Zhou became education minister in 2003, but he was widely criticized for moving too slowly to correct them. When all 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress voted in March to retain or replace cabinet-level ministers, Mr. Zhou drew 384 no votes — putting him in last place among the 72 ministers who were considered.
But there had been no hint that the government was considering replacing Mr. Zhou. Indeed, he met last month with the Russian prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin, during Mr. Putin’s visit to Beijing, an indication that he was in good standing with top leaders.
Late Monday, the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences stated on its Web site that Mr. Zhou would join the organization, further indicating his departure was unrelated to corruption charges. Still, some Chinese newspaper columnists suggested Monday that Mr. Zhou’s departure offered the government a chance to address broader corruption in academia, in which excellence and the search for truth had been subverted by politics and the search for a fast buck.
Both basic and higher education have been hindered by corruption, including the selling of degrees and stellar test scores by administrators as well as cheating among students.
Mr. Zhou’s successor, Yuan Guiren, may offer a preview of the ministry’s new direction. Mr. Yuan, 59, earlier was president of Beijing Normal University, known by educators as one of the most progressive institutions in a nation where higher education is tightly bound by ideological and political restraints.
China has poured billions of dollars into education in the last decade. The results are remarkable: Higher-education enrollment has more than tripled since 2000, and China today awards more college degrees than the United States and India combined. Annual awards of doctoral degrees rose sevenfold between 1996 and 2006.
But critics say the quality of teaching has suffered, and in recent years universities have become more politicized as Communist Party officials began to view a senior academic position as a ticket to career success.
Elementary and secondary educational institutions have significantly raised literacy rates and attendance, but schools are hamstrung by financing problems.