This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
Universities will not be exempt from China’s wide ranging anti-corruption drive, which was unveiled at the end of 2013 and will be stepped up in a continuing campaign dubbed a ‘five-year plan’ against graft.
Investigations into university officials began in 2013 and will continue in the coming year, according to official reports.
The campaign has the potential to cause some disruption in higher education – already academics are reporting extreme caution within universities, and many academics will not step out of line, to avoid becoming the focus of attention.
In all educational institutions the anti-corruption drive will be accompanied by an ideological education campaign, the ruling Communist Party said.
Corruption hurting aspirations
China is aiming to become a global science and technology power within 10 years.
However, “a glass ceiling will soon be reached if a modern system of higher education cannot work properly, so the Chinese leadership realises [corruption] is a serious issue,” Yang Rui, professor of education at Hong Kong University, told University World News.
The anti-corruption campaign was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping shortly after he took office in March 2013. It has been rolled out on a sector-by-sector basis, with particular industries targeted.
Some 37,000 officials were investigated in the first 11 months of 2013, according to China’s top prosecuting body, the Supreme People’s Protectorate, in figures released in early January. They include some high profile university leaders.
The five-year (2013-17) anti-corruption plan was issued by the Communist Party’s Central Committee last month. Xi Jinping has said that graft is so serious that it could threaten the very survival of the party.
“Although it is comparatively less than in other sectors in terms of absolute amounts, misconduct in higher education is widespread,” said Yang. “In theory they [the leadership] want to tackle corruption in higher education, but in practice it is impossible to achieve, because it is so widespread in China, it [involves] almost everyone.”
This was confirmed in a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China on corruption in the higher education sector, released on 27 December 2013. It said graft in higher education was widespread although “less serious than in other fields”.
The report listed “building infrastructure, decision-taking and student enrolment” as the areas where higher education corruption was most prevalent.
Attention on universities
The Communist Party’s attention turned to educational institutions in the second half of 2013, because of concern that university corruption had the potential to harm the country’s research reputation abroad and damage China’s 'cultural soft power’, as well as exacerbate inequalities as the wealthy use bribes and official connections to secure student admissions, while those in rural areas and the poorest are left behind.
Campus-related construction and purchase of goods and materials are particularly blighted by corrupt practices, as universities rushed to expand and construct huge new luxury campuses and additional buildings.
Contracts are often awarded without proper tenders, giving rise to opportunities for embezzlement or nepotism in the allocation of lucrative contracts.
Infrastructure corruption is “very visible”, said Hong Kong University’s Yang.
Just over three quarters of the cases exposed in the past year involved construction of facilities and buildings and expansion of campuses, official reports said.
In particular, infrastructure corruption in higher education often occurs with the collusion of local and provincial authorities.
In addition, “there is a close connection between corruption in higher education and current poor management in the higher education management system,” said He Zengke, researcher for the UNDP report at the China Centre for Comparative Politics and Economics, a research organisation under the party’s Central Committee.
But it is not easy to tackle.
Party leaders “know how profound the corruption is, but they cannot hit everyone, they have to pick a few”, said Yang. If the authorities root out large numbers of staff in universities, then higher education modernisation and reform itself could fail, he said.
University heads investigated
The authorities will begin spot checks on assets and other ‘personal’ information reported by officials to the party and will punish those with ‘hidden wealth’, official media said in early January.
According to one academic in Guangzhou, who spoke on condition that he is not named: “What is different compared to past anti-corruption drives is that corrupt officials, particularly those in universities, have become easier to catch because there is so much conspicuous consumption by officials that is clearly beyond their official salaries.”
In 2013 at least 11 top university officials, including some university presidents, were investigated and some sacked.
Around five university presidents are known to have stepped down during the past year alone after being investigated for corruption, according to a range of official sources.
Among the high profile cases, Cai Rongsheng, head of student admissions at Renmin University of China, or RUC, was detained and placed under investigation for allegedly selling university places, official media reported.
Ironically, RUC was much praised by officials when it became the first in the country to offer a masters degree in anti-corruption studies, aimed at law students. The first cohort graduated in June 2013.
Chu Jian, vice-president of the prestigious Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, also lost his job last month.
Although the prosecutor’s office would not reveal further details while the investigation is ongoing, local reports said Chu, a former deputy in the National People’s Congress, China’s rubberstamp parliament, had been arrested in November for alleged ‘economic crimes’.
Other reports noted that the investigation into Chu’s affairs related to the Supcon Group, of which Chu was CEO.
Supcon is a subsidiary of the former Zhejiang University-owned Zhejiang Highne Science and Technology Company, which listed on the stock market in 1990. The investigation appears to be related to the relationship between the university and activities of the company.
Sichuan University Vice-president An Xiaoyu was reported to be under investigation by CCDI – the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – last month following allegations of corruption related to the construction of a new campus.
In June 2013 Zhou Wenbin was dismissed from his post at Nanchang University in southern Guangxi Province and shortly afterwards his membership of the National Legislature was revoked for ‘serious disciplinary violations’ – an official phrase often used to suggest corruption. Zhou had also been deputy party chief of the university.
In a case that carried over from previous years Liu Zhihe, former vice-principal of Nanchang Aviation University, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in February 2013, after being found guilty of accepting bribes totalling CNY2.62 million (US$433,000).
The court said Liu had taken advantage of his positions as vice-principal of the university and general director of its new campus construction project, taking bribes from 12 individuals on 41 separate occasions. In return, Liu assisted the individuals with construction of their projects by providing funding and arranging jobs.
The UNDP report’s survey of perceptions of corruption among students, parents and cadres in higher education institutions found postgraduate enrolment more prone to corruption than undergraduate enrolment.
Although opinion surveys are unlikely to reveal specific cases, and cadres in general tend to understate corruption compared to students and parents, the UNDP findings confirmed the government’s own suspicions.
The Xinhua agency reported in early December that up to CNY1 million (US$165,000) was being paid for admission to a top university in Beijing.
Wang Liying, director of a team from the CCDI sent to the Ministry of Education, called for a thorough investigation of university admissions in the coming year to ensure educational equity.
Despite previous efforts to root out corruption in universities, “criminal and disciplinary violations” in key areas – such as admissions – had not been contained, she said in remarks on the ministry website posted in December.
Universities were not allowed to collect money “in the name of donations” or levy special fees as part of the terms of admission, she said.
The ministry also set up a hotline for the public to report any misconduct in graduate school entrance exams held in early January.
New enrolment ‘master plan’
On 24 December the education ministry released regulations detailing how ‘autonomous admissions’ should be conducted.
It urged local education authorities and universities to make public their admissions rules and the results of exams run by universities, pending the publication of a ‘master plan’ to reform enrolment expected in the first half of this year.
The ministry has already said that universities will be disqualified from a programme that allows some to conduct their own autonomous admissions process, if they do not conform to ethical procedures.
It called on universities to accept “the supervision of discipline watchdogs in the admissions process”, which some academics say makes a mockery of so-called autonomous enrolment.
Some 90 universities qualified to select their own students in 2013, compared to 22 when the programme was launched in 2003. Just 5% of undergraduates can be selected through proprietary selection tests, with the vast majority of students allocated places through the national college entrance exam or gaokao.
Renmin University of China has already been stripped of its right to recruit autonomously in the wake of the arrest of student admissions head Cai Rongsheng.