China's youth scrambles for 'hot' diplomas: Private education is booming, writes Teresa Poole in Peking

LUO NAN, Zhou Yu Fang, Wang Jun and Tang Yi Ying all laughed when asked why they had enrolled at one of China's new private universities. 'No other choice]' said Zhou Yu Fang. Their scores in the annual national university entrance examination had been too low for places at the state universities and Haidian University in Peking had been the best substitute.

'Two years ago, I did not like to talk about my university with other people. I did not think it was good enough,' said Luo Nan. 'But now I am proud of this university. Most subjects here are very practical, and required by society.' This small group had between them signed up for diploma courses in computing, accounting and tourism.

Higher education in China is in the process of rapid reform. The state does not have the money to fund existing institutions, demand is far greater than the number of available places and the country is facing a severe skills shortage as economic reform increases the demand for trained technical staff. This has prompted a financial overhaul within state universities and a burgeoning of private or so-called 'minban' (literally 'people-run') tertiary education institutions.

The old Communist meritocratic system has assumed some contemporary 'Chinese characteristics', where money can be as useful as examination grades. There are now 50 minban universities and colleges in China of which 10, including Haidian, are allowed to award recognised diplomas. Another 500 private higher education institutes offer vocational and technical training. It represents a big departure from the days when education was tightly controlled by central government and students had little choice about careers.

Under the old system, children who passed the university entrance exam received free education in residential colleges and were afterwards assigned by the state to a 'work unit'.

These days, about 3 million would-be students sit the national examination every summer; about one-third find places. Those who score above a fixed grade qualify for a subsidised place at a state university and pay an average of 500 yuan (pounds 42) a year.

Those students who narrowly fail to make the grade need not despair, however; they now have the option of enrolling as 'self-paying' students at the state universities, where places are still available so long as they can afford up to pounds 250 a year in fees. Many can, and they now account for 10 per cent of state university and college places.

Others whose scores are too low for the state universities can apply instead for the new fee-paying minban establishments. The pass mark this year for the prestigious Qinghua University in Peking, for instance, was 590; Haidian was between 350 and 385. These minban establishments are often hybrid creatures: privately funded and independently administered, but usually set up under the auspices of government organisations such as overseas Chinese associations.

Haidian University, the only minban college in Peking permitted to issue diplomas, was the brain-child of its president, Fu Zhen Tai, a professor of mechanical engineering at Qinghua. It opened in March 1984, a prototype for later minban organisations, and is now almost entirely funded by the fees paid by its 3,200 students, of whom one- third are on diploma courses, paying about pounds 200 a year. 'Nine years' experience proves we can run the college in a way that does not depend on the state,' said Professor Fu. Students are not resident and are not guaranteed jobs afterwards.

Private universities have also widened opportunities for teachers. Haidian has 80 full-time teachers, about 50 retired teachers and about 300 part-time teachers from the surrounding universities who are pleased to have some way to augment their meagre state salaries. 'My teachers all come from famous universities and I am very satisfied,' said Wang Jun. Those universities sometimes feel their teachers are being encouraged to neglect their first job.

Educational reform has also meant big changes to life after college. All the 'self-paying' students, either at state or minban institutions, have the responsibility - and freedom - to find their own jobs. This suits the many who find lucrative opportunities outside the government sectors, but not those who still yearn for the Communist 'iron rice bowl', China's cradle-to- grave system of social security. Professor Fu laughed: 'Most of our students find good jobs. Most get higher salaries than me]' Zhou Yu Fang said: 'We think we have an advantage in this competition for jobs. When we chose this college we knew we would face the market system.' Regular state sector students can also choose their employers, but only after paying a 'release' fee of several thousand yuan. Nevertheless, this year about 10 per cent of Peking students paid to be free to choose their own jobs.

The minban universities cannot compete with the state sector in terms of facilities and can award only diplomas, not degrees. But they can have an edge in terms of the courses. Haidian University, for instance, offers computing, electronics, architecture, languages, tourism management and financial management. 'From the subjects, you can see that we meet society's demands. They are more practical, and they include 'hot' subjects not available at university,' said Professor Fu.

The state universities have had to respond. The People's University in Peking, set up by the Communist Party after the 1949 victory, has introduced courses in real estate management, international trade and taxation. It is winding down subjects such as 'scientific socialism' and 'the science of national economic planning'.

(Photograph omitted)