In China, an easy route to academic glory
By Stephen Wong
25 November 2009

SHANGHAI - Often overlooked in the "miracle" of China's rapid economic development over the past three decades is the "miracle" in the massive number of PhD graduates it now produces.

China is expected to replace Japan as the world's second-biggest economy - after the United States - this year or the next in terms of gross domestic product. But by 2008, it had already surpassed the US as the world's top producer of PhD holders - despite post-graduate programs only resuming in 1978 after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

Unlike national pride over China's economic success, the expansion of PhD programs is viewed with suspicion, due to

allegations that corruption in the education system has severely compromised academic standards.

According to statistics released by Yang Yuliang, the director of the Academic Degree Commission under the State Council - China's cabinet, China's first PhD programs in 1978 had only 18 candidates. In 1982, the first doctorates were awarded to six of the 18.

However, post-graduate programs increased exponentially with the fast expansion of tertiary education in 1999 as a result of the government's policy to "industrialize" universities. The government believed that higher enrollment would create a generation of educated urbanites, boosting domestic consumption and reducing dependence on exports after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Graduate enrollment in PhD programs has grown by some 23.4% annually since 1982. In comparison, the average annual growth rate for students enrolling in master's degrees during the same period was 15%. By the end of 2007, China had awarded 240,000 doctorate degrees.

However, the number of qualified professors needed to supervise such doctorate programs has not kept pace, raising fears that quantity is not being matched by quality.

According to Yang, each qualified Chinese professor has to supervise 5.77 doctorate candidates, much higher than the international level. A dozen professors from Anhui province last week wrote to the Ministry of Education asking why the educational system was failing to produce world-class scientists and scholars. The question was also raised by Qian Xuesen, the father of China's space industry, before his death in October.

There is also concern over the often opaque relationship between universities and businessmen and officials, many of whom are enrolled in doctoral studies. Professors say that businessmen and officials often use cash, power or influence to avoid doing the work necessary to obtain PhDs.

Sources from the Graduate School of Chongqing-based Southwest University said that about half of all senior party and government officials in the districts and counties of Chongqing municipality were PhD candidates at their school. And Chongqing is by no means an isolated case.

It is so commonplace nowadays for senior officials to have doctorate degrees that the media were surprised that Zhang Ping, the recently appointed minister in charge of the National Development and Reform Commission - China's top economic planning body - only has a diploma from a vocational secondary school. Zhang later earned plaudits for not exaggerating his academic background.

Demand for doctorate degrees has grown as the authorities in Beijing often base promotion decisions purely on a candidate's educational background. For many officials, higher degrees are also a way to gain face.

Officials see universities as being under their jurisdiction. In turn, officials' need for higher degrees has become a business opportunity for universities. Many universities (even some foreign ones) have set up enrollment offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, promising diplomas. In some programs, officials can earn their degree from home without having to attend exams.

While for most ordinary Chinese earning a doctorate degree remains an arduous process, powerful Chinese officials are now offered a so-called "green route" - from entrance examination to graduation. Entrance exams are generally organized by the university independently, and to attract students with political clout some colleges and universities even offer "exam-free admission".

Once enrolled, privileged students do not need to take the courses seriously; in many cases sending their secretaries to take the classes and exams. Professor Cai Jiming at Tsinghua University remarked that "most degrees earned by Chinese officials are questionable".

Wang Yi, the former chairman of China's Securities Regulatory Commission, who was arrested in February on suspicion of taking bribes, is one example. His curriculum vitae listed him as a doctor of economics, but his master's degree was in history, and it took him only two years to obtain his PhD.

Wang's case drew a sarcastic response from Professor Ge Jianxiong of Fudan University in Shanghai, "It is pretty impressive that Wang was admitted to the highly sought after doctorate program of economics He must not only be a quick learner, but also a capable multi-tasker to complete his course, pass his exams, finish his dissertation and pass his oral defense within only two years.

"To achieve this while at the same time being also engaged in his no doubt hectic official business. If not a genius, he must be a brilliant talent," added Ge. He called for an investigation into the acquisition of Wang's doctoral degree, but his demand was not met.

Observers say that Chinese officials obtaining dubious doctorate degrees not only wastes scarce education resources, it has also triggered a crisis of confidence in the education system, undermining genuine PhDs gained in China. Yet some Chinese universities say they need to meet officials' wishes if they want to ensure their financial survival.

A vice president of a university based in central China's Zhengzhou City, who wished to remain anonymous, said most universities relied on government funding, especially for research funds, projects and university development plans. If one university dared to refuse admittance to a powerful official, another university would quickly say "yes". Officials may also consider the rebuttal as a humiliation and seek revenge.

For the PhD tutors of high-ranking officials, this teacher-student relationship can be a win-win situation: it enables the tutors to get more access to research projects and resources, while they can piggyback their powerful students' clout to gain other resources.

Most universities in China are public, with their presidents assigned by the government and their funds mostly allocated by the government. To some degree, university officials themselves are government officials - they are often transferred from or to a government department, and so are linked with government officials from other branches.

At universities, the influence and status of an employee is not his academic title but his administrative ranking. The higher the ranking, the more power the person has. So university employees often target higher administrative rankings than decent academic titles.

Ironically, this has led to a situation where government officials are queuing up for higher academic degrees while university officials and professors are competing for higher administrative rankings.

Academic corruption in collusion with corruption in officialdom has become common in China. As a result, Chinese universities struggle to produce great scholars while Chinese officialdom lacks sophisticated politicians. Famous mathematician and Harvard professor, Shing-Tung Yau, in a speech at Nankai University, lambasted China's academic corruption as "the national stigma".

Growing public anger over widespread academic corruption and other problems in education recently led Premier Wen Jiabao to fire the minister of education, Zhou Ji, who had been in office since 2003.

Stephen Wong is a freelance contributor from Shanghai.

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