LIANE HANSEN, host:
Joining us now is NPR's Larry Abramson, who has just returned from China. He was there to report on the expanding higher education system. Welcome back, Larry.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Hi.
HANSEN: We just heard that rankings factor heavily into a Chinese student's decision about college. How does it work?
ABRAMSON: Well, the Chinese themselves are very obsessed with these rankings. Families really measure whether or not their kids are going to the right school. And since there are more and more Chinese now who can afford to go to university, who want to go to university, more of them expect to go to a decent school, whereas in the past they just never even thought that they would go to school.
HANSEN: You said the number of students is growing. How rapidly?
ABRAMSON: It's pretty astonishingly, yeah. There are 25 million university students in China. That's six times the number there were in about 1998. So it's a huge growth in a very short period of time. And you remember that Chinese universities only reopened after the culture revolution in the late 1970s. So they were completely for many years.
And that expansion has led to a lot of concerns about whether or not they can maintain and improve the quality of these schools.
HANSEN: With all of this change that you're talking about, Larry, do you actually expect the Chinese universities at some point are going to rank among the world's best?
ABRAMSON: Well, you would think with everything happening in China that that would happen at some point. I mean, that their economy is growing, their level of expectation is growing. I had an interesting experience when I was in Shanghai talking to a professor in a teahouse about education, and he was telling me about his plan.
He said, well, what we really need are more community colleges to raise the level of education for workers, and that would really be the salvation of Chinese education. And all of the sudden something very unusual happened. A well dressed man with a briefcase approached us and he interrupted us. And he said, look, I know what you're talking about, but he said he had taught medicine in the United States, at Columbia as a matter of fact, for many years and then he returned to China.
Unidentified Man: I took a job at a (unintelligible) University medical school after being for four years but (unintelligible) too. Because I realized it's not a university. It's a government organization.
ABRAMSON: So he's saying he came back to China and he realized he wasn't a university professor anymore, he was a government functionary. And he said we need the changes. He said it would take decades, then he wouldn't give me his name for reasons I can only imagine. But that's what many people said. Is that these universities, as much as they may be augmenting their faculty and trying to improve quality, they just won't be world class until people feel like they have the same academic freedom as they might be able to have in the West.
HANSEN: Thanks a lot, Larry.
ABRAMSON: Thank you.
HANSEN: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Larry begins a two-part China education series and reports on an unlikely alliance between a small American university and the city of Dalien(ph), China.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.