Domestic Affairs

Academic apartheid at Chinese universities

By Binod Singh (
Updated: 2010-08-26 11:54
Large Medium Small

Since I've been seriously involved in academics in China for six years, I felt there are certain issues that need serious consideration by Chinese education policy makers as well as by parents of the post-90s generation.

The issue is the excessive obsession with euro-centrism at the higher academic institutions in China. For readers who have an idea of the hierarchical system of a Chinese university and its resource allocation, it is never clearer than now that most of the fund goes to schools and research centers focusing on studies of Europe and America. Faculty and students at the marginalized Asian and African schools are treated as "third class citizens" inside the university community.

Say you are engaged in European studies, then you could claim to be in the mainstream. Otherwise, if you are working on Third World countries, I am afraid that you might be rethinking your decision. Actually the number of faculty working on the largest continent is so limited that some students cannot even find an academic supervisor for their research work, forget about getting a grant and doing field work.

The overall morale of faculty and students engaged in Asian and African studies is low, and they worry about their future. Most of them drop their research work midway in the absence of minimum supporting funds to continue their studies, and choose work that had nothing to do with their major.

On the contrary, I never came across a student in European and American studies who has never been to those countries. In fact, some of the faculty are so well-traveled that you can rarely see them on campus. The mantra is just keep in touch by email, and your thesis will be approved.

China being a socialist market economy, its universities still depend on state funding for much of its resources. But the system is not so transparent as to make out how much fund goes where and how it is allocated. It seems that a lion's share of resources is grabbed by the so-called four top-class universities in Beijing and therefore, many of the other universities are starved of funding. If the local government is not helping them out, they will resort to their own fund-raising by taking bank loans, or running industries in the name of the university, such as the campus hotels euphemized as resource buildings.

The commercialization of universities seems to be going in the wrong direction. This altogether in a sense destroys the spirit and overall atmosphere of learning and academic discourse at a place known for setting standards for others to follow. I do agree that there is much to learn in the field of science and technology from Western and developed countries. But one should not overemphasize this importance.

I think most of us will agree that this world is beautiful because we have diverse cultures and languages across the continents. It is not beautiful just because of English. I encourage my students to pay at least a rightful attention to the stories of Asia and Africa because the future belongs to them, and the world system is obviously getting multi-polar, and many countries from the Asia-Pacific region are emerging as important players.

This is an urgent time to seriously consider a major overhaul and restructuring of the fund allocation mechanism for universities in China. The faculty and students deserve equal, if not more, support and incentives in order to pursue their research work and contribute to the literature of the reemergence of Asia. In other words, it is time to end the "academic apartheid" toward the Asian and African schools at Chinese campuses and let us give due importance to those studies and realize the dream of a peaceful and prosperous Asian century.

-- The writer is a guest lecturer at the School of Asian and African Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University and a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies at Peking University. He can be reached at