Modern Chinese history

Chinese students face new challenges

Modern Chinese history

Patrick Wood looks at Chinese education system and its effect on students. The article first appeared in China Eye magazine 2005.

The author has been teaching in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province since 2000. He first taught at Sichuan University but this summer he moved to the South West University for Chinese National Minorities. He had previously taught in China during 1992-94. Patrick had the pleasure of meeting SACU members Derek Bryan and Hong Ying in Chengdu during one of their periodic visits to China and he joined SACU on a return visit to the UK in 1994.

It's nearly 8.20 on a warm May morning. The second year students are arriving for their first class of the day: English oral/conversation. I sit at the front waiting. Judy arrives; she is always one of the last. We smile a greeting and I notice that she is wearing 'hot pants' and a backless top. She also has a necklace and dangly earrings. I find myself thinking about the changes that have taken place in Chinese students' ideas and lifestyles in a little over ten years.

I first came to China to teach English in 1992. I was the representative of British Quakers and part of my task was to maintain the link with the West China University of Medical Sciences, which had begun with the founding of a university in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The original name of the university was the West China Union University and it had been established by five missionary societies from Canada, the USA and Britain. British Quakers were one of the societies. It was at that University that Derek Bryan and Hong Ying, co-founders of SACU, met and married.

I taught for two years students who were studying English as their major, returning to the UK in 1994. I returned in 2000. At that time the Medical University merged with the larger Sichuan University into an enormous institution with over 70,000 students on three campuses. What changes have struck me most forcibly about my students in the period between 1992 and 2005? What follows is inevitably anecdotal and impressionistic but I believe can give some insight into the difficulties and challenges facing China's most educated young people today.

I have alluded to dress and jewellery. Students are increasingly conscious of what they wear and spend money on what is considered the latest fashion. Hair styles are changed as is hair colour: curls created, or straightened, and any colour as long as it's not black It seems the busiest businesses on and outside campuses are the hairdressing salons. Boys are just as susceptible to the urge to be fashionable and pierced ears are becoming more common to complement the latest weird hairdo (I am reflecting my age in that comment).It is probably true to say that the creative arts students are the most adventurous, 'way out' in their dress and hair styles.

By the time students have reached their second year ownership of a mobile phone has become the norm. Text messaging appears to be all-consuming passion. I have to remind my students to switch off so that class can continue uninterrupted. Even so I notice surreptitious fingers working away below the desk.

Computers are increasingly used. Net bars flourish. As students move through their undergraduate life more and more become owners of a computer. The Internet, chat rooms, email are normal parts of daily activity. Internet connections are available in student dormitories although it is not easy to access international sites unless the student knows all about what, I am told, are proxy servers! Another very important use of the dormitory computer is to watch the latest DVDs pirated from the west. I have learned far more about films -sorry movies - and film stars in the last few years than in the previous 55 of my life.

So what is this telling us about Chinese young people today? They are very aware of western popular culture and are happy to follow it. To that extent they are more willing to express their individuality even though paradoxically they are following a kind of herd instinct to ape the west. I do not believe the individualism is a new phenomenon. In the early 1990s in conversation students often showed they had thought deeply and were not prepared to accept unthinkingly any insistence on a 'group line'. However now they are prepared to be more open in their behaviour. They are more ready to be critical of the official line but, and this is a theme I shall be developing, the first concern is themselves.

Their attitude to relationships with the opposite gender has become almost unbelievably more open. In the early 1990s couples were rarely if ever seen holding hands. Nowadays you see that and more at all times of day and evening all over the campus. Younger students become very concerned if they don't have a boy or girlfriend. Some students in their fourth year rent accommodation off campus and partners live together. This is 'not allowed' officially but the authorities do not feel secure enough to challenge this behaviour.

Recently in a Chinese colleague's class a second year student decided to give her power point presentation on the topic of contraception. The teacher felt able to allow this and then encouraged small group discussions on the topic of premarital sex. I learned of one group where the young man vigorously defended his belief that he expected his wife to be a virgin but did not accept that he should be one when he married. He encountered some lively opposition from the young ladies in his group. This openness would not have been possible even three or four years ago. Indeed it probably would have resulted in dismissal of the teacher. Students discovered in compromising situations would have been expelled.

If the changes I have outlined so far are due, at least partially, to the greater and easier access to western ideas and fashions, the more profound changes are the result of government policies. In 1992 university education was free. If you passed the entrance exam then tuition and residence were free. Campus food was subsidised. Upon graduation each student was assigned a job usually in the province they had come from. Party control was absolute. Rapidly from 1993/4 this changed.

Accommodation fees were introduced, students were told to find a job themselves, tuition costs were introduced, low at first but increasing quickly. Universities were freed to make money and could no longer rely on government money. Teachers were encouraged to develop courses that students would elect to take. The more students in a class the more money the teacher and the university earned. Quality is not necessarily the main criterion for these courses and examinations frequently lack rigour. From a student's perspective, more courses look good on the CV.

Students are encouraged to take a second major beginning in their second year. The ones that are chosen most are those that have a definite utilitarian objective: finance, international trade, economics, business management, law - especially corporate law. Students now face two challenges that were completely unknown when I first arrived in China: financing their studies and finding a job.

For the growing affluent middle class the fees and living costs are not a problem but what about those from the countryside? They can borrow the funds they need from commercial banks at government-supported low interest rates. As well as this many students take on part-time jobs. Some students from poor families owe enormous moral and financial debts to their family. In some cases the student was chosen by the family to be the bright one who would go onto university.

Siblings have sacrificed their own secondary and college education to help earn the money. Those debts will not be paid off in a few years after graduation as can a bank loan. It is very noticeable that students from such backgrounds are the most dedicated to their studies. They know they have to be successful. In fairness the communist party leaders within universities do what they can to award small scholarships and help such students find a job.

However, I fear that further problems will become apparent in the near future. China is producing more graduates than it can employ. Two or three years ago postgraduate courses mushroomed as increasing numbers of students took the decision that an MA would be more likely to secure them a good job than a BA. Next summer will be the first when a massive number of post-graduate students come to the job market. Will their dreams of a good job be realised or will there be many over-qualified and frustrated young people? What will the effect of so many graduates be on the chances for graduates? There is a further complication. The poorer students are not usually among those pursuing higher degrees because they are unwilling to take on more debts. How will they fare in the search for employment? I do not know the answers to these problems.

How are these concerns about their futures affecting students? My experience is that it is encouraging them to think more selfishly. I used to hear students talking about 'serving the people' a phrase that is now, like the Little Red Book consigned to history. I feel great sympathy for these youngsters. It is clear from their conversations with me that they are desperately searching for advice and guidance. But they are on their own. Neither their parents nor their teachers have faced these problems and the dilemmas that are part of moving from sheltered academia to the hard world of employment. Their seniors did what they were told. There is no accumulated wisdom. They are treading paths that their families know nothing about. Communication without shared experiences is very difficult and that is the position that university students are finding themselves in today.

The university leaders used to be concerned with producing the educated young people for society. Now they are largely concerned about protecting their own positions. They need to encourage students to come to their university because they bring with them funds. They spend the money on grandiose new and unnecessarily large campuses because 'big is beautiful and wonderful'. They have followed central government policies to merge smaller (more manageable) universities into ever- larger unmanageable ones.

They have built out of town campuses, which are disliked by students and teachers, but admired by those who only visit occasionally in the official car. They listen to and respond to the demands of students. They give the impression they are afraid that if they do not they will fail to attract new ones. In contrast they can ignore the needs of teachers especially the younger ones, because with so many graduates and post graduates there will be no shortage of people to fill the places of teachers who rock the boat. It is tragic that good young teachers are feeling frustrated and see no future. But that is another story.

Today's students are growing into adulthood within a very different situation to those I taught a dozen years ago. It is not a comfortable time for many of them.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2005, reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 8, 2005

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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