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Colleges Must Learn to Walk Before They Could Run

The Ministry of Education will carry out a special investigation into its affiliated universities about their overall development situation.

The probe will include inquiries about teacher/student ratio, school facilities, infrastructure construction and the overall financial situation of universities.

The enquiry has been prompted by land requisition scandals and debt crises surrounding some university expansion schemes that have been met with complaints from the general public.

China began its ambitious college enrolment expansion in 1999. In just five years, enrolment more than doubled from 1.64 million in 1999 to 4.2 million this year. The number will go up to 5.1 million in 2005.

The development boom has given more young people the opportunity to enjoy higher education, but it has also strained resources in colleges and universities when teachers and facilities have not kept pace with student numbers.

With old campuses hardly able to cater for new students, city suburban areas seem the next best choice for new campuses, where there are fewer land restrictions and local governments are keen to accommodate them.

In Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, the suburban island of Xiaoguwei has been designed to set up "Guangzhou College Town," that will include all branch campuses of local universities and colleges.

In Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province, there are three college towns under construction around the city all competing to attract the 38 local universities and colleges in the city to open new campuses there.

But State authorities have found that most of China's 54 college towns are developing at a faster pace than can be maintained. University development has become an object for real estate developers to make money and for local government officials to claim political achievement.

The operation of "college towns" has so far been poor. In the Oriental University City in Hebei Province's Langfang, more than half of the finished buildings are empty.

Some college towns under construction have now become involved in land requisition scandals and debt crises. In Xiaoguwei Island, where there was an art village and villa district of private properties, local residents were forced to give up their land to the local college town. Many property owners are still fighting the move through the courts. In Nanjing, many of the schools have become debt ridden because of the new campus construction. A lot of the land acquired for new campuses was actually acquired contrary to land use rules.

The decision of the State authorities to put the brakes on the development rush of higher learning institutions has come at the right time.

The Ministry of Education's investigation should offer a clearer picture of the overall development situation and help improve the management of this sector.

(China Daily December 27, 2004)

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