Education divide

Is China’s education sector also decoupling from the West?


Peking University’s commencement ceremony in 2021

College rankings are notoriously controversial. Most of the data that compilers use to calculate the rankings is self-reported, such as the amounts of money a school raises and spends. There is also little monitoring of the accuracy of the information. So how much emphasis should be placed on these rankings when determining which schools to apply to?

Last week, Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University of China (RUC) grabbed headlines when it announced that it will no longer take part in international university rankings. The move came just two weeks after President Xi Jinping visited the college, calling on the higher education sector to build world-class universities with “Chinese characteristics”.

The RUC traces its roots to a school founded by the Communist Party of China in Yan’an in the 1930s after the Red Army’s Long March. It is still funded by the Ministry of Education as well as the Beijing municipal government.

With such a ‘red college’ taking the lead, others soon followed: Nanjing University and Lanzhou University also announced their own withdrawal from the international rankings too.

 China Daily – not so subtly – hinted that Chinese universities pulling out of college leagues tables could soon be a “trend”.

The move quickly prompted a lot of discussion on the internet. Many were supportive of the decision: “China’s education system has been developed for thousands of years, and it is the oldest and richest education system in the world. It innovatively supports the country’s cultural traditions, enhances our own unique knowledge system while maintaining cultural sovereignty,” one educator gushed. “The withdrawal of RUC from the so-called ‘international university rankings’ only reflects the autonomy and courage of Chinese universities, the country’s education and culture.”

Local pundits also asked why Chinese universities should adhere to a set of standards often set by foreign bodies. “The international ranking of universities is a commercial pyramid scheme, and it is a wise move to withdraw,” Sima Nan, an influential social media commentator, wrote, for instance.

“Chinese universities must respect the country’s unique history, distinct culture, and its specific national conditions. To do that, we should not follow others and simply use foreign universities as the standard or role model. Instead, we must take root in China and blaze a new path,” Qianjiang Evening News added patriotically.

Others, however, were less enthusiastic. Some reckon that the  schools chose to opt out because they are not satisfied with their ranking. Indeed, despite Renmin University’s reputation in the country – where though it is not as prestigious as Tsinghua or Peking University, it is on a par with Shanghai’s Fudan – the school only ranks 599th, according to the US News and World Report’s list. Similarly, according to the Times Higher Education ranking, it came in at number 601.

Others argue that by not participating in the global rankings, Chinese universities risk becoming increasingly isolated and will pay less attention to what their foreign peers are doing in leading edge areas.

Bi Dunrong, Dean of the Education Research Institute of the Higher Education Development Research Centre of Xiamen University, argues that what makes an educational institution world-class is that it has a global perspective and not just a national vision. “That means for China to create world-class universities, openness, dialogue and collaboration are inevitable,” he told He did not say it, but nationalism has nothing in common with disciplines like physics which are universal in nature. For that reason the sciences usually involve global cooperation across university campuses for most of their groundbreaking research.

The news about Chinese universities withdrawing from global rankings also came a week after eight cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, announced that because of the recent Omicron outbreak, the annual Advanced Placement (AP) exams that are supposed to take place later this month have been cancelled. While they are not a must, these exams – which only take place once a year – are important for students who want to get into the top colleges in the US. Although other cities like Tianjin and Hangzhou will continue to host the AP exams, unless students were already registered to take exams in those cities, they cannot transfer their test location.

Worse, students that have chosen to take AP courses usually have set their minds on studying abroad. One parent in Beijing told Caijing that her child had signed an agreement with the high school that by choosing to take AP classes, he would not participate in the gaokao, China’s own college entrance exam, as the two tests are completely different in curriculum and format.

“We were told that AP exams were very important if we want to get into a top university. But after the AP exams were cancelled, we tried calling the schools to tell them. They said not taking the AP is not a big deal. So now we are at a loss of what to do,” one parent sighed.

May has been a stressful month for many of China’s high school students, to say the least. Early this month, Shanghai’s government announced that its gaokao will be postponed for a month as schools remain closed.

In China, the gaokao – as WiC has repeatedly emphasised – is widely considered to be the most important entrance exam, the results of which can make or break a young person’s future.

Meanwhile in other education news with an international angle the Financial Times reported this week that the prestigious 450 year-old English boarding school Harrow would change the Chinese name of its Beijing branch from ‘Harrow International School Beijing’ to ‘Beijing City Chaoyang District Lide School’. This came after the government changed regulations and banned schools with Chinese students from using foreign names and words like “global” or “international” in their titles. While in English ‘Lide’ sounds like ‘lied’, the two Chinese characters li and de reference two key Confucian values. Other changes to Harrow’s involvement may affect local students at the school who wanted to sample an elite British education within China. (However, it will not affect those pupils with a foreign passport who attend Harrow’s twinned international school in the capital city.) That said, the name change to Lide is another symbolic decoupling of China’s education sector with the wider world…

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