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Xinhua Insight: Debate over university funding projects in China

BEIJING, Nov. 14 (Xinhua) -- China's Ministry of Education has quelled rumors that the 211 and 985 project, aimed at improving the quality of higher education in China, would be abolished in a statement released Thursday.

Universities participating in project 211 and project 985 are entitled to various degrees of state research funds, usually receiving far more funding than that distributed to ordinary colleges.

The two projects, put in place to develop world-class universities for China, have effectively promoted the overall quality of the country's higher education and there is no plan to abandon them, the statement said.

But opponents of the two projects say too many education resources are attached to them, causing severe inequality and academic corruption.

Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute and a professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University, says such projects will still be abolished eventually because they are planned by government agencies and too inefficient.

"None of the world's top universities are planned. Instead, they become great through competition," said Xiong.

Project 211 and 985, launched in 1995 and 1998 respectively, includes the country's most prestigious universities such as Tsinghua University (THU) and Peking University (PKU).

According to figures released by the education ministry, 985 and 211 universities received more than 60 percent of their research funds from financial allocations while non-participating colleges receive less than 40 percent.

THU registered 3.93 billion yuan (641.1 million U.S. dollars) of research funds in 2013, 70 percent of which are from financial allocations, according to the figures. By comparison, Southwest Petroleum University, the top grossing university not participating in the projects only registered 460 million yuan.

Even among different 985 and 211 universities there remains a large gap in funding. "Thirty years of financial support to Guizhou University still falls short of one year of that allocated to THU and PKU," said Zheng Qiang, president of Guizhou University, a 211 but not a 985 university.

Zheng was the former vice party chief of Zhejiang University, both a 985 and 211 university.

Chu Zhaohui, a research fellow with the National Institute of Education Sciences, said some 985/211 universities can not make good use of the research funds they receive and even misappropriated research money.

China spent one trillion yuan, or about 1.97 percent of GDP, on research and development in 2012, and the figure surpassed 2 percent for the first time in 2013. Much of the money has been misused, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

Li Ning, who made his name in trans-gene research and was the first in China to clone a rare cattle species in 2012, and three other professors were found to have swindled over 25 million yuan of state funds through fake research projects.

For college students, a 985/211 title means more than just an honor but also a bigger chance to land a job after graduation.

Although the education ministry has banned employment discrimination against students graduating from non-985/211 universities, many job-seekers still feel "an invisible threshold."

In 2012, a local bank in Shenzhen issued a job posting in which it said employment opportunities were only for 985/211 college graduates. In protest, Zhang Bigong, president of non-985/211 Shenzhen University, called upon students' parents to withdraw their money from the bank to boycott such discrimination.

Others argue Chinese universities are too reliant on government financial support. They say academic corruption is driving away potential private donors. In July, Chinese billionaire Pan Shiyi and his wife Zhang Xin donated 15 million U.S. dollars to Harvard instead of colleges in China, raising debate over the quality of college education in China.

Chu Zhaohui the research fellow, suggests establishing an independent third-party audit system to monitor the use of research funds in Chinese universities.

"Whether to abolish such projects or not, China's higher education needs to reform its research distribution system," said Chu.

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