ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
For a sign of how much China has been transformed in the past couple of decades you can look at enrollment in higher education. Today in China there are about 25 million university students. That is five times the number of a decade ago.
As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, this growing population is putting pressure on Chinese universities to offer more and better choices to students.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Like much of eastern China, downtown Nanjing is a forest of skyscrapers, but Nanjing University still has an Ivy League feel to it. I met school vice president Zhang Rong in a beautifully landscaped villa once home to a top official under General Chiang Kai-shek.
And so this was his...
Mr. ZHANG RONG (Vice President, Nanjing University): Before - before - you know, before the World War II.
ABRAMSON: So he lived here.
Mr. ZHANG: It's his house.
ABRAMSON: This university's architecture signals Nanjing's elite status as one of China's top five schools. Yet despite the increase in the number of students in China, schools like Nanjing have grown little. Vice President Zhang says Nanjing is limited to students with top scores in an effort to preserve and enhance the university's reputation.
Mr. ZHANG: Most top-ranked Chinese university have a goal to become a world class university. That's our goal.
ABRAMSON: That exclusivity places even more emphasis on the all-important college entrance exam - the gaokao - which say is even more notorious than the SAT in the States.
(Soundbite of cafe)
ABRAMSON: Here at Beijing's Space for Imagination Cafe, students gathered to tell their stories about getting into college. One student with the English name of Ivy says Chinese students feel compelled to accept admission to the most prestigious school they can get into, regardless of whether they can study the major they're interested in.
IVY (Student): It seems that all students try to get the university with the highest ranking and highest grades no matter whether they are interested in this university, in this major.
ABRAMSON: Many students forgo their preferred major in order to get into the best school they can. 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 on university education still reigns supreme.
Even students like Eleanor Pei, a business student at Renmin University, can't imagine doing it any other way.
Ms. ELEANOR PEI (Student): I feel really complicated about the college entrance exam system. Because like I really hate the system, so it exists and it has problems, but we need it.
CINDERELLA (Student): If the university choose us, not we choose the university.
ABRAMSON: That student calls herself Cinderella in English, and she has done something about the limited number of choices available to her. She's one of a growing number of students turning to private universities.
Unidentified Woman #1: Make sure that everyone loved you gets involved, okay...
ABRAMSON: This English class is offered by Eurasia University, a large private school on the outskirts of the city Xi'an in Central China. About 30 students form themselves into groups to practice introducing themselves in English.
MELODY: My name is Melody. The most time I spend my time in the library to enhance my vocabulary and to so many things.
ABRAMSON: Many privates focused on practical skills in high demand such as translation, nursing or hotel management. Xi'an has become a magnet for private education - thanks to generous tax breaks. Tuition is 20 percent higher than at public schools, but students are flocking to the privates for one reason.
Now, how many of you came here because your scores were too low for public universities?
CINDERELLA: Not too low, just a little low.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ABRAMSON: That's Cinderella again, who says if it weren't for this private university, her low test scores would've forced her to accept a school of far lower quality. Many Chinese still look down on private schools, but as far as facilities are concerned, some are pretty impressive.
Not far from Eurasia University, Xi'an International University is bristling with technology and new buildings. University president Huang Teng whisks me pass new libraries and language labs.
And President Huang, you have a lot of energy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HUANG TENG (President, Xi'an International University): Yes.
ABRAMSON: President Huang's face smiles from Xi'an International's brochures and ads. He's an entrepreneurial go-getter with a broad grin and a high-pitched laugh who never tires of touting his school's accomplishment.
Mr. HUANG: (Speaking foreign language)
ABRAMSON: President Huang beams as he shows me around a little museum exhibit about the school's history complete with a dramatically lit diorama detailing his grand plans for the future. Privates like Xi'an International are growing faster than the public universities in China. They can keep expanding because tuition revenue keeps growing from students whose test scores won't admit them to the public school of their choice.
Mr. HUANG: (Speaking foreign language)
ABRAMSON: Huang boasts that each year his school adds as many as five new disciplines. Things like cartoon automation and auto repair, where job prospects are optimistic. 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. Chinese families who want a guarantee of top quality face stiffer competition, higher prices, and another new arrival on the higher ed scene here.
Mr. JOHN MARDERSON(ph): A judge in the U.K. described an auditor as a watchdog.
ABRAMSON: A class of Chinese business students stares blankly at lecturer John Marderson as he uses an English language metaphor that may take some explaining.
Mr. MARDERSON: I've said the auditors was a watchdog but not a bloodhound.
ABRAMSON: Maderson use to be an auditor, now he's standing in a lecture hall at the University of Nottingham, located not in Central England but in Ningbo, a booming Chinese seaport just down the coast from Shanghai. Students pay $9,000 a year to attend here; that's nearly 10 times the cost of public schools. What do they get in return?
Mr. MARDERSON: We would argue the development of more critical faculties. So in a Chinese university there'd be a tendency to repeat what they'd learned, a repetition, whereas we're trying to get them to actually think about the issues.
ABRAMSON: The University of Nottingham may be the only independent foreign campus on Chinese soil. Instruction is in English, and the hour is told 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. Most importantly for students, there's a British degree awaiting at the end. That's how this school grew to 3500 students in just four years. Provost Peter Buttery gestures at empty space that he's filling with new buildings.
Mr. PETER BUTTERY (Provost, CEO, University of Nottingham): That's the sustainable energy technologies building that's just about to be completed; and this area over here is where we're going to build further laboratories and a lot more buildings.
ABRAMSON: U.S. universities would like to open campuses just like this one. But the Chinese government has been wary of authorizing too much innovation. As more and more Chinese students expect to go to college, that may have to change.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.