Since the draft of Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) released in February 2010 by the Ministry of Education for public discussion, de-bureaucratization within institutions of higher education (gaoxiao qu xingzhenghua) has been a hot issue of debate. Colleges and universities have been objects of fierce public criticism from scholars, students, government, and other stakeholders. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao opposed bureaucratization within higher education institutions. As he indicated, "Universities had better abolish so many complicated administrative levels."
In China, public colleges and universities are associated with different levels of political administration. For example, thirty-nine top universities ("985 project") are approved as units at the deputy ministry level of the central government; undergraduate institutions are generally affiliated as units at the department level; and tertiary vocational colleges are recognized as units at a lower administrative level. Accordingly, presidents, party secretaries, heads of administrative affairs, and deans of schools at higher education institutions are appointed by their respective administrative authorities. Their salary and treatment also reflect the corresponding stature of the administrative level that supervises them.
Presidents and party secretaries (representatives of the Communist Party who usually have considerable administrative authority) of public institutions are appointed by central or provincial governments; deans of schools are nominated by their universities. More importantly, substantive academic authority is in the hands of control of presidents, party secretaries, office heads, and deans; resources are distributed by these groups. University senators and professors, especially lower status faculty members have limited impact on university governance. Their voices are barely audible. Although public opinion is critical of colleges and universities the political bureaucracy more than the academic organization hold the authority to respond. According to public opinion, bureaucratization has inhibited China's universities from educating excellent talent and achieving landmark research during the past decades. If bureaucratization within academic institutions continues, it is impossible for China to construct word-class universities and build a strong higher education system.
Of course, there are different understandings of de-bureaucratization within institutions of higher education. Zhou Qifeng, President of Peking University agrees in principle with the idea of de-bureaucratizing universities. Yet, he argues that in China's current context if the administrative levels of universities and their cadre are removed, higher education institutions will face even greater problems and challenges. He stated that at his university many academic powers, including faculty appointments are already left to the schools and university senate.
According to the final text of Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020), colleges and universities need to seek administrative systems more compatible with the characteristics of academic institutions, overcome the tendency of over-administration, and abolish the existing multi-level governance model; governments should improve governance and legally ensure that academic institutions make full use of autonomy but also “tow the mark”. It will take China time to achieve these objectives and the project will proceed step by step.
It is unfair for colleges and universities to be accused of bureaucracy. In China the all-powerful state exercises a tight rein over academic institutions—public institutions are government-affiliated and therefore have limited autonomy. The root cause of bureaucratization within colleges and universities is a result of the strong influence of an external actor—the government. As Chen Xuefei, a distinguished professor of higher education at Peking University has insightfully pointed out, "The key to de-bureaucratization within higher education institutions is in government's hand."
Note: There are different translations for "qu xingzhenghua" of "gaoxiao qu xingzhenghua" in China, including non-administration, de-administration, and de- bureaucratization et al. In fact, what the universities need to reduce is bureaucratization, while administration is a necessary activity of running a university. Therefore, de-bureaucratization is the best suitable expression for translation of "qu xingzhenghua".
(Kai Jiang is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education, Peking University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)