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Every time they brag about higher education, the limelight is on scale. Making college education accessible to more is of course something to be proud of.

Yet, to be honest, that is only about size. Now, after those years of fanatic expansion, we would rather hear the Ministry of Education talk more about quality. We know it can be embarrassing. But that is something the education authorities cannot evade.

When a former Communist Party chief of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) says that "characterlessness almost becomes a common characteristic of our colleges," we are sure he is being polite. We have no intention of discussing how much worse the real picture is here. But the USTC professor's analysis is worth examination by those in charge. Bureaucratization, he points out, is the root cause of the degeneration of Chinese colleges.

The system's "visible hand," he says, is the foremost killer of distinct personalities. Without genuine academic autonomy, independent personalities are out of the question. Poorly conceived inspections and competitions imposed by administrative authorities have not only distracted institutions of higher learning from their educational responsibilities, but imposed uniform criteria of excellence on a business where there is no such thing as one size fits all.

Things would not be that bad should the "visible hand" intervene only from the outside. The truth is that colleges are being run like any other bureaucracy, where intellectual pursuits are subordinated to administrative ambition.

That those running institutions of higher learning are ignorant of, disregard, or cannot follow the rules of education as a profession, according to the USTC professor, is another important reason for the state of our colleges. The predominance of anti-intellectual factors on college campuses not only deprive our institutions of higher learning of academic vitality, but provide catalysts for academic corruption. College campuses no longer fit the once revered status of an "ivory tower". Such open secrets as copying, plagiarizing and bribe-taking are as prevalent as other forms of corruption. And, these are taken for granted as the "tacit rules" of business.

Indeed, fraudulent academic practices are too widespread to surprise or shock anyone. But it is quite another matter for them to be treated as acceptable.

We have been hearing lamentations about the falling quality of higher education and against academic corruption all these years. And, once in a while, vows to have changes made are also heard. But, forgive us for being impatient, we are yet to see substantial difference.

We understand the challenge, complexity, and difficulties of managing a mammoth national education system. But that is no reason to look on while obvious problems persist.

(China Daily September 2, 2009)

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