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On the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing.
On the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

BEIJING — A few days ago, a video showing Zhou Huzhen, the board chairman of Hebei College of Science and Technology, captured the attention of the Internet. The inevitable existential questions followed: Are Chinese universites bona fide educational institutes? Or are they really there just to maintain the power of the status quo?

Zhou Huzhen was inspecting the university's freshmen just after they'd completed their beginning-of-the-school-year military training. In the video, he is seen standing on a pick-up truck emblazoned with the words "march-past" in red. By the look of things, he seemed to enjoy the attention as uniformed students filed past shouting, "Good day leader."

There have been numerous reports in recent of years of universities holding military-style parades in front of their respective directors, who stand there basking in the glory of it all. Web users can mock and criticize all they want. But it doesn't seem to discourage these university heads, who have become addicted to the euphoria of power they derive from the processions.

Military training of college kids is supposed to be part of the national defense strategy and help encourage patriotism. But over the years it has deviated from its initial purpose. Certain rectors and military instructors get to be infatuated with their sense of power. In some cases that obsession with authority has resulted in abuses — humiliating a group of female students, for example, by putting buckets over their heads while running; or forcing students to lie beneath blankets under the baking sun.

Nurturing refined egos

The marches and military training are obvious indicators of the power dynamics at play in China's universities. But they're just the tip of the iceberg. The real power of the universities has to do with their operating models and systems of administration.

In August, for the first time — and only because they were ordered to do so by the Ministry of Education — 75 Chinese universities published their annual accounts for the previous year. The top schools such as Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, Peking University and Shanghai Jiaotong University all have annual accounts of around 14.5 billion yuan (nearly $2.3 billion).

Alumni donations make up very little of these universities' financial support, and most of China's top universities receive more than 60% of their funding for scientific research from government allocations. In other words, universities should long ago have been obliged to open their ledgers. Just like a lot of the country's public spending, there is a marked lack of transparency and little oversight.

Meanwhile when we take a global perspective and look at how Chinese universities perform, the result is embarrassing. In August, the First-Class Universities Research Centre of Shanghai Jiaotong University published a list of the academic ranking of the world's universities. Harvard University in the U.S. has topped the list for 13 years straight, while none of Chinese universities makes it even into the top 100.

Of course, some would argue that Chinese colleges emphasize employment-oriented practical teaching, and though we don't have much influence academically, our students have a high employment rate.

In fact, the employment rate is often faked, and the pragmatism is embodied in utilitarian ideas, such as boasting which universities have produced the most billionaires or high officials. There is even a professor who cynically told his students, "Don't come back to see me unless you have earned $40 million by 40 years old." No wonder some people criticize Chinese universities for being good at nurturing refined egos.

Education and the society are closely related. How the university fosters youngsters will affect both the social atmosphere and national strategy. Whether respect and authority in a university are based on who is more highly ranked in the administration and who controls the financial resources, or on one's mastering of academic knowledge and truth, is what distinguishes administrative philosophy from education philosophy.

Only if the politicized administration is removed from Chinese universities can they move past the "power struggle" and focus again on what higher education is really about: learning for learning's sake.

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