Tea Leaf Nation
China’s Top Schools Get Middling Marks for Transparency
Elite Peking University fared particularly poorly in newly released rankings.
On Mar. 11, a think tank affiliated with the Chinese government released its first-ever Chinese university transparency index, ranking 115 schools based on their willingness to disclose information about everything from the employment rate of graduates to joint programs with foreign schools. Peking University, arguably the most prestigious university in China, and the 39th-best university in the world according to U.S. News & World Report, didn’t even crack this list’s top 50, lagging far behind a number of obscure local schools. Other prestigious institutions, like Tsinghua University in Beijing and Zhejiang University in southeastern China, fared slightly better, but sat outside the top 10. The findings have observers angry about the relative opacity of China’s wealthiest, flagship institutions.
There’s a reason that China would even seek to rank universities by transparency. Higher education is government-run, and central authorities exert close control over curricula, but that hasn’t stopped higher ed from becoming a recent headache for Beijing; over the past 12 months, embezzlement of educational funds, frequent reports of sexual harassment by university professors, and endemic plagiarism have given China’s ivory towers a growing reputation for scandal. In what appeared to be a response, the country’s Ministry of Education issued a notice in July 2014 requiring that by October 2014, schools disclose online 50 pieces of information ranging from recruitment practices and statistics to university presidents’ business trips abroad.
Online reaction to the list’s release has not been kind, particularly toward top schools like Peking University. Dahe.cn, a provincial news website from central Henan that has fulminated against the distribution of education resources in favor of wealthy areas like Beijing, asked provocatively why schools like Peking University and Tsinghua University, “which are good at producing high-level officials, rank so low on the transparency index.” (China’s current president, Xi Jinping, and former president, Hu Jintao, both graduated from Tsinghua; current Premier Li Keqiang is a graduate of Peking University.) On Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, one user wrote, “The fewer resources an university has, the more transparent it is. And vice versa.” Another wrote, “When you see those fancy cars at Peking University, you know what’s happening.”
The ire directed at Peking University and its ilk isn’t just schadenfreude from those who didn’t make the grade. Educational funds are generally concentrated in elite schools in the prosperous cities in which influential government officials often happen to live. According to information disclosed by schools online, in 2014, Peking University received around $550 million from the Chinese government, and Tsinghua around $566 million. The most transparent university on the index — Ocean University of China, an obscure school on the east coast — received only $150 million in the same year. This inequality has bred resentment in less prosperous provinces, particularly populous ones like Henan, for years. At a press conference on Mar. 8, 2015, a Henan delegate to the national legislature complained that in 2008, it was 24 times harder for students in his province to get into Peking University than it was for students from Beijing; by 2013, that multiple had jumped to 31. The delegate suggested that top universities rejigger entrance quotas to reflect provincial populations, not proximity to wealth.
Transparency advocates have their work cut out for them. Peking and Tsinghua face no apparent penalties for being less than fully compliant with the recent information directive. And the government itself is not practicing what it preaches, at least not yet: The transparency index has not, in fact, been released in full on the think tank’s website, with authorities releasing a summary report in its stead.
Simon A/Flickr/Creative Commons