Larry Abramson, NPR
Like much of eastern China, downtown Nanjing is a forest of skyscrapers, but Nanjing University still has an Ivy League feel to it.
Like much of eastern China, downtown Nanjing is a forest of skyscrapers, but Nanjing University still has an Ivy League feel to it. Larry Abramson, NPR
Larry Abramson, NPR
At the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, instruction is in English and a big clock tower tolls the hour.
At the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, instruction is in English and a big clock tower tolls the hour. Larry Abramson, NPR
Larry Abramson, NPR
The library at Eurasia University, a private school on the outskirts of the historic city of Xi'an. Xi'an has become a magnet for private universities, which are growing quickly in response to rising demand for higher education opportunities.
The library at Eurasia University, a private school on the outskirts of the historic city of Xi'an. Xi'an has become a magnet for private universities, which are growing quickly in response to rising demand for higher education opportunities. Larry Abramson, NPR
To get a glimpse of just how much China has changed in the past couple of decades, look no further than enrollment in higher education. Today, there are about 25 million university students in China — five times the number a decade ago — and that number is expected to keep growing.
Like much of eastern China, downtown Nanjing is a forest of skyscrapers, but Nanjing University still has an Ivy League feel to it. From ivy-covered buildings, to birds that flit from carefully trimmed trees, the campus is an oasis of calm in the middle of the city.
This university's architecture signals Nanjing's elite status as one of China's top five schools. Yet despite the overall increase in the number of students in China, schools like Nanjing have grown little. Zhang Rong, vice president of Nanjing University, says that in an effort to preserve and enhance the university's reputation, Nanjing has limited its enrollment to students with top scores.
"Most top-ranked Chinese universities have a goal to become a world-class university," Zhang says. "That's our goal."
The Entrance Exam
The focus on rankings places even more emphasis on the all-important college entrance exam: the gaokao, which some say is even more notorious than the SAT. The test is the most important factor in determining who gets into the best schools.
One student with the English name Ivy, says some students feel compelled to go to the most prestigious school their scores can get them into.
"It seems that all students try to get into the university with the highest ranking, regardless of whether they are interested in this university and in this major," Ivy says.
Publicly run schools get their pick of the best students and are viewed as engines of the economy. Ambitious students eagerly await their exam results, which determine whether they can get into a prestigious public school. Private schools, on the other hand, must do their own outreach and advertising and are viewed by many as a last resort for low-scoring students.
The government has opened up new avenues for students with special talents to enter without high scores. But the exam — and the near-government monopoly in university education still rule supreme.
Even students who are uncomfortable with the exam can't imagine doing it any other way.
Eleanor Pei, a business student at Renmin University in Beijing, says she feels conflicted.
"I really hate this system. It exists, and it has problems, but we need it," she says.
Another student, who goes by the English name Cinderella, is more blunt:
"It's the university that chooses us," not the other way around, she says.
Home to Private Schools
Cinderella is one of about 30,000 students at Eurasia University, a large private school on the outskirts of Xi'an. Xi'an is home to many of China's private universities, which offer an option for students like Cinderella whose exam scores were too low to gain admission to a respected public school.
"Not too low," she says. "Just a little low."
Xi'an has become a magnet for private education, thanks to generous tax breaks. Tuition is 20 percent higher than at public schools.
And students are flocking to the private schools because they offer a greater choice of majors and better quality for students with middling scores. Many private universities focus on practical skills in high demand, such as languages, nursing or hotel management.
Many Chinese still look down on private schools. But as far as facilities are concerned, they're pretty impressive.
Xi'an International University is bristling with technology and new buildings: libraries, language labs outfitted with computer-aided training programs, and training facilities for medical professionals. Cafeterias for students are open late in the evening, turning the campus into a mini-city.
University President Huang Teng is an entrepreneurial go-getter who never tires of touting his school's accomplishments. He boasts that each year, his school adds as many as five new disciplines — such as cartoon automation and TV and auto repair.
Despite this breezy confidence, some Chinese academics worry that private universities spend too much on advertising and glitzy buildings, and too little on quality instruction.
There's another new arrival on the higher education scene here: campuses that offer the quality of a foreign education, without the need to travel abroad.
The University of Nottingham in Ningbo, just south of Shanghai, may be the only independent foreign campus on Chinese soil. Instruction is in English, and the hour is tolled by a big clock tower, a reminder of home to the many Nottingham transplants who can retreat to the Robin Hood cafe at the end of a tough day.
There's a British degree waiting at the end of a four-year course of study. That's helped this school grow to 3,500 students in just four years.
Provost Peter Buttery stands on a patio and gestures at empty land he plans to fill with new construction. He points to an area where a sustainable-energy technologies building is nearly finished. There's another area where the school plans to build more laboratories "and a lot more buildings," Buttery says.
Students here pay $9,000 a year — nearly 10 times the cost of most public schools. What do they get in return? According to Buttery, they receive a degree that is just as valuable as one issued by the home institution in England.
American universities would like to open campuses like this one. Kean University in New Jersey has announced plans to open a campus in the city of Wenzhou. But the Chinese government has been wary of authorizing too much innovation. As more and more Chinese expect to go to college, that may have to change.