Administration in China’s Higher Ed System: A Problem of Kind, Not Degree

Where there is a problem in an American university, a university administrator will be hired to address it. It does not matter if the problem has a solution: as Stanford sociologist John Meyer cynically explained in a lecture this week in Beijing, as formal organizations such as universities expand beyond their core mission, the answer is to hire a professional to accommodate each additional new function, no matter how difficult or unnecessary it may seem. “You have to hire a professional,” he said. “That’s how you prove that someone is doing something when they should be doing nothing.”

While the American higher education system has been dominated by growth in the number of administrators, the crux of China’s higher education shift in the last decade-plus has been an unprecedented expansion in the number of students. The Chinese higher education system counted 36.5 million students in 2852 postsecondary institutions in 2015. From 2003 to 2013, total enrollments increased more than 200 percent, more than 10 times the growth in the United States over the same period

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don't read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

The 2016 budget expenditures for the 73 national universities in China. Even if you don’t read Chinese, you can figure out that the numbers drop off pretty quickly.

Since the Chinese government began the latest round of higher education expansion in 1999, at the tail end of the Asian Financial Crisis, it has excelled at enrolling students but struggled to actually educate them. Most students will enter middle- and lower-tier schools, but funding and attention remain concentrated on the most elite schools — even compared to merely elite institutions. Tsinghua University, one of China’s top two schools, is slated to spend 18.2 billion yuan in 2016; more than double every other school in the nation except Peking University, Zhejiang University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. (see chart, right)

Many scholars and commentators criticize the university’s administrative system for holding back the development of China’s higher education. But although the inequality between schools is reminiscent of problems in the United States, the administrative issue that plagues China’s higher education system is a difference of kind, not of degree. As I explain in my new piece in this month’s Washington Monthly, China’s problem of over-administration is a question of concentrated political power, not of administrative bloat.

Administrative expansion, combined with decreasing state funding, more price discrimination, and the Chivas Regal effect that equates higher price with higher quality, has spurred massive tuition increases in American higher education. It is extraordinarily expensive to go to college in the United States: the annual cost of attending an elite private college, or a public college for out-of-state students, is far higher than the median household income in the country.

None of this can apply in China because the state controls all of these levers. Tuition levels are set by the state and have not increased in a decade. Most schools rely almost entirely on government funding for their revenue; few universities except for the most elite schools can draw a significant amount of money from other sources, such as donations or external grants.

More importantly, universities, cannot, as Meyer suggests, endlessly hire people to solve problems that cannot be solved. The bianzhi system of civil servant hires strictly limits the number of administrators a Chinese university (or any public institution) can hire. The massive expansion of higher education since 1999 has not included administrators, because it can’t.

Education-wise, however, direct state management of the higher education system has problems that overwhelm administrative bloat. In short, it’s really hard to provide a quality education with an administrative system so rigid and so dependent on the the political system that the people who are most familiar with education and research — professors, researchers, lecturers, and students — have no power or status. It is feasible to imagine that China can create a quality higher education system without some of our beloved liberal institutions, such as unfettered free speech, but it is much harder to see an improvement in teaching and research without a more equitable administrative balance of power.

Whether we even want world-class universities should also be up for discussion: if world-class universities rely on higher education inequality, it calls into question the basic assumption that we should want more world class universities. China, however, has committed itself to some form of this idea, relying on a theory of trickle-down higher education in which the existence of more top universities will lead to positive spillovers for the rest of the university system and the country. “The Chinese view seems to be that you have these pioneer vanguard universities that will be world-class, and they will then bring other things along with them,” explained Harvard’s Elizabeth Perry. Whether this is true in practice remains unclear, however.

Major policy changes are in the works to reorient the existing Chinese higher education system. The Ministry of Education, after deleting hundreds of documents from its web site, confirmed this summer that it was moving forward with canceling the 985 and 211 programs; if plans go forward, it would make elite university funding somewhat more competitive and, therefore, more efficiently and equitably spread resources to a larger share of universities.

Bianzhi, too, is on the chopping block — at least in theory. As I was writing the Washington Monthly article, the social security ministry (MoHRSS) announced that they were actively exploring ways to get rid of the bianzhi system in public hospitals and universities (the vast majority of universities and hospitals are public). The deadline for this reform to be complete is 2020: an ambitious goal, to say the least, given how deeply entrenched any system of public sector employment is. According to China Economic Weekly (link in Chinese), more than 10 million people would be cut from the public payroll during hospital and university reform.

In China, the difference between tizhi nei — in the system — and tizhi wai — outside — is large. There is a social security system for people who are tizhi nei, and there is a system for those who are tizhi wai. The former, needless to say, is much better. The movement is toward equalization: in early 2015, those inside the system had to begin contributing to pension funds; previously they were able to take benefits without needing to pay in. Yet reform is a question of pace as much as one of direction, as even equalization reforms only slightly improved systemic inequality: civil servants were guaranteed an extra government annuity to ensure that they did not lose all of their benefits during the 2015 pension reform. At the same time, major reform is destabilizing; as the economy slows and political leaders feel more pressure, the difficulty of reform only increases. 

The stated deadline for fixing the higher education and civil servant pay systems is 2020. It seems likely that China’s top officials will need to ask for an extension on these assignments.