The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project

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From the Great Leap Forward to 1977

The Great Leap Forward began in 1958, and aimed to make China much more self-reliant and able to rapidly catch up to the developed world. During this period, there was wide-spread experimentation in the Chinese education sector, with more focus on grassroots education and indigenous knowledge (for example schools of traditional Chinese medicine). There was also more focus on applied research – universities were encouraged to set up small factories, and linkages between higher education institutions and the research organizations were strengthened (Hayhoe 1996).

In this period, there was a strong movement to develop more local curricular content, with students contributing to writing new textbooks, and introducing regional differences. This happened together with a strong growth in non-formal and adult education, with evening classes at regular universities, and spare-time universities attached to state-owned enterprises and rural communes. The result was a mushrooming in the number of institutions of higher education (from 229 to 1289), and the number of students enrolled – although questions were raised about the quality of education provided through these non-formal institutions (Hayhoe 1996).

In 1963, however, there was a retrenchment, following the losses that had been experienced through over-ambitious efforts at expansion in the Great Leap Forward, and the famine that had happened. The Ministry of Education issued the “Decision on Unifying Management in the Higher Education System”, which stated that the central ministry had the full responsibility for preparing teaching plans (jiaoyu jihua, 教育计划) for each specialization, teaching outlines (jiaoyu dagang, 教育大纲) for each course, and textbooks that were nationally standardized (Hayhoe 1987). The preparation of these materials was led by the Ministry, in consultation with academic subject committees, whose members were often professors at the most prestigious universities. Each specialization had several teaching and research groups (jiaoyanzu, 教研组), responsible for researching methods to transmit knowledge as efficiently as possible (Hayhoe 1989).

The teaching plans for each specialization contained four points: the purpose of formation in that specialization, the organization of time, the structuring of all the required courses and the arrangement of the teaching environment. The teaching outlines for each course included a statement of aims and requirements for the course, list of important content areas in appropriate order, list of basic reference texts, and teaching guidelines (Hayhoe 1989).

Cultural revolution

During the Cultural Revolution, there was a strong growth in the informal track of education and in basic level education. This had begun to emerge during the Great Leap Forward, and now grew strongly, as a more radical political faction took control of the government. The educational ideas of the Cultural Revolution were based around the idea of giving workers and peasants broad access to education. There was a also a phenomenal growth in secondary education, and a strong push for full integration between the educational system and all aspects of social life – the very opposite of the Soviet specialization and departmentalization that had reigned before (Hayhoe 1996).

Formal universities were mostly shut down between 1967 and 1971, with students travelling throughout the country making revolution and learning from the experiences of workers and peasants (Hayhoe 1987). When they reopened, they mostly taught shorter and more general programs (Hayhoe 1989). However, the system became very politicized, for example abolishing merit-based exams in favour of recommendations based on class-background and political objectives. Age limits were eliminated, together with the merit-based entrance exams and the examination-based grading system, and the number of school years needed for graduation was reduced (Yang 2004).

There was great discontent with the centralized Soviet-inspired curriculum that had prevailed, and the People’s University, which had been one of the beachheads for Soviet influence in China, remained closed over the entire period from 1967 to 1977. Similarly, the national bureaus responsible for planning and disseminating the standard teaching plans, outlines and textbooks were abolished, and old textbooks were criticized for being too theoretical, and narrowly specialized (Hayhoe 1987). Committees of students, teachers, and worker-peasant-soldier representatives were set up to take responsibility both for administering higher education, and for creating new teaching materials that would reflect local needs. The ideal was both to give control over the knowledge that would be transmitted to teachers and students, and to ensure strong links between academic and real-life knowledge (Hayhoe 1987).

Continuity and change after the Cultural Revolution

In discussing the reestablishment of the university system after the Cultural Revolution, Pepper (1990, 131) believes it was essentially a continuation of the pre-Cultural Revolution model from the 1960s:

In all other respects, the university system that was reestablished between 1977 and 1980 essentially replicated the antebellum model of the 1960s, which was essentially the same as the Sino-Soviet compromise variation that had emerged from the early 1950s pro-Soviet period. Hence, all of that system's centralized features abolished during the 1966-76 decade were restored. These included the national unified college entrance examinations, unified enrolment and job assignment plans, unified curricula, and systematized rules and regulations for everything.

As an example, the “Decision on unifying management in higher education” was affirmed by the Central Committee in 1979, and the Ministry of Education was again given the role of regulating nationally standard teaching plans, teaching outlines, and textbooks. The Ministry of Education only administered 38 higher institutions directly, but it made all major curricular decisions for the 226 institutions administered by other national ministries, and the 411 institutions administered by provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions (Hayhoe 1987).

However, change was coming, and the changes to the “The Sixty Articles”, which had originally been proposed in the retrenchment period of the early 1960s, were harbingers of greater openness. Universities were to be centres of both teaching and research, as of the Decision on Reform promulgated in 1985, not only of teaching, and intellectuals were to be regarded as part of the working class, thus having greater freedom of action (cited in Zhou Yuliang 1986, 461). There was also a small increase in the power of university presidents, although the role of the party committee was still important (Hayhoe 1989).

With the 1985 reform, the government aimed to:

change the management system of excessive government control of the institutions of higher education, expand decision-making in the institutions under the guidance of unified educational policies and plans of the state, strengthen the connection of the institutions of higher education with production organizations, scientific research organizations and other social establishments, and enable the institutions of higher education to take the initiative and ability to meet the needs of economic and social development. (cited in Hayhoe 1989, 40-41).

Universities gained much leverage in adjusting the objectives of various disciplines, formulating their own teaching plans and programs, compiling and selecting teaching materials (Hayhoe 1991). There was also a reduction in required course hours in favor of electives, more time for self-study and student initiatives. The role of the Ministry of Education was no longer to produce authoritative teaching plans and outlines, but rather to organize teaching material committees (jiaoyu ziliao hui, 教育资料会) and guide the development of material. It also acquired foreign curricular material from from a wide range of countries, not only the Soviet Union, but also Japan, Germany, France, and the United States, among others, and organized their translation and distribution (Hayhoe 1989).

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