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Peking University Graduate School: At 30, at crossroads?

Peking University, Jan. 19, 2015: Three decades ago, in the tranquility of the Weiming Lake at Peking University, one of the first 22 Chinese graduate schools was born in a typical Beijing courtyard, built with crimson bricks and laid with greyish stones. Turn the clock forward, and Peking University Graduate School has already turned 30 at the end of 2014, with 35 top-ranked disciplines in China and a staggering number of 21,433 students studying for their degrees. While it is a miraculous feat, the school does understand that the education is not yet of satisfying quality and its mission ahead will never be a smooth drive down the avenue. On the 30th December, 2014, representatives at all levels of the school along with former Peking University presidents, retired professors and officials from the Chinese Education Ministry got together to celebrate 30 years of development, as well as to embrace the forthcoming challenges.

The Glamour and the Glory

In October, 1984, an official document from the Chinese Ministry of Education established Peking University Graduate School. A large wooden board inscribed with the name has since been overlooking the beauties of the Weiming Lake. The history of the school, however, goes way back before the official document. The first batch of graduate students can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century, when a research center was set up at Peking University. Despite the disruptions of a world war, a civil war and many chaotic revolutions, the School has never ceased its efforts to increase the quantity of students and improve the quality of education.

And indeed both quantity and quality have witnessed rapid development. The number of graduate students soared 13 times in 30 years and more than 100,000 degrees were given during the same period of time. The contributions they have made to academic research and society as a whole.

Quality wise, Peking University Graduate School has always strived for innovative ways to motivate students and provide them with the best possible environment. Research ability is given an increasingly important role rather than test scores during selection processes, a reform that has ensured that places go to the most competent students. To satisfy the diverse demands of students, they are given the choice of academic-oriented or application-oriented education schemes so that personalized plans can be drawn. Rigid divisions of disciplines have given way to a more flexible system so that interdisciplinary methods can be used for a more holistic research. With the help of the Chinese Education Ministry, funds for innovative studies have paved way for many breakthrough studies. The school also encourages students to look beyond the confines of the campus by supporting international exchange programs and joint degrees with overseas universities. Breaking the barriers of the campus also means that compelling social issues are introduced and thoroughly discussed during featured lectures such as the CaiZhai Classroom and Hongmen Dialogue.

The amount of thoughts and efforts being injected into the school has certainly paid dividends. As of 2014, Peking University Graduate School has 16 disciplines that rank first in China, 9 that rank second, and 10 that rank third. It is this glamour and glory that keep attracting top young talents around the world to this school. The past 30 years have laid solid foundations for further reforms in the future.

The Present and the Problems

It is certainly dangerous to rest on the past laurels. At 30, it is still relatively young for graduate schools. It is natural to have problems and the gap between Peking University Graduate School and the top graduate schools around the world is obvious. The vital thing is to acknowledge and address them.

One of the most glaring issues is that, although there is a well-written plan, Peking University Graduate School still lags behind many top graduate schools in developed countries, particularly in innovative thinking and international perspective. The system’s lack of sophistication caused numerous problems, such as a shortage of motivation and practical skill. The line between academic-oriented and application-oriented students is much blurred, and the sought-after diversity remains a far cry from reality. Most students are still “manufactured” academic products who have failed to break the mold.

The need to construct a more comprehensive assessment mechanism is also highlighted. It can be felt that ways to analyze the practical ability are scarce, and scholarship for excellent research works hasn’t motivated students better.

In 2014, Peking University’s QS ranking declined from 46th to 57th in the world. The school only ranked 346th in terms of international faculty members and was outside 400th in terms of international students. These two low scores certainly are alarming. According to further analysis, Peking University does not have enough international cooperation programs with overseas universities, which ultimately contributes to a lack of international teaching resources and the number of international students.

The reality manifests that at present, Peking University Graduate School needs to be more active to make a change and reform on its agenda.

The Future and the Fight

Peking University Graduate School is 30. It is at crossroads. So is the entire graduate student education in China.

In recent years, Chinese political leaders and international scholars are all striving to improve graduate student education, with the focus now on the quality rather than the quantity. The forthcoming years have been dubbed "the era of quality”, since economic growth, innovation, social structure and globalization all require new and intelligent faces to support them. And that task, inevitably, has fallen to education. Graduate student education, as one of the primary means to nurture top talents, has been given special attention. As China enters the period of transformation both in the economic sense and the political sense, graduate student education has arrived at a critical juncture. At 30, at crossroads. That is how the situation is at Peking University Graduate School.

The challenge is huge, but so is the opportunity for reform. With the problems stated above, there is considerable potential for the school to improve itself, or, if necessary, overhaul some areas. Ethics is the foundation of all successful academic institutions. Professors need to be responsible for their students. To make that happen, more autonomy will be offered to professors and more scientific assessment and supervision systems will be introduced. Professors will play an increasingly important role in the selection of perspective students and creative methods will be allowed. At the same time, any act that is at odds with teaching ethics will be properly investigated. Quality assessment will involve external parties to ensure fairness and accuracy. Transparency will also be advocated, so that outside supervision can be enforced.

With the guarantee of ethics, Peking University Graduate School plans to make its previous ideas into reality. A clearer line will be drawn between academic-oriented and application-oriented students, and innovative and interdisciplinary studies will be adequately encouraged. The school will also seek to increase cooperation with overseas universities, including exchange programs, joint degrees and courses in English. A supervising mechanism will also be set up so that students and professors will actually benefit from those programs.

How things will pan out in the end is yet to be seen, but Peking University Graduate School has made the pledge and is determined that as long as its actions are within legal territory, it plans to push ahead with its reforms, listen to various voices, and implement the necessary measures. The school will not make rash decisions and all policies will be thoroughly discussed in a fair and transparent manner.

At 30, at crossroads. The people of Peking University Graduate School will remember its past glories, but they will never cease the attempt to make themselves better. The Chinese Education Ministry and former university presidents and professors of the school have all voiced their support for reforms. Let’s hope that they will not disappoint us.

Reported by: Xu Liangdi

Edited by: Zhang Jiang