Professors that love teaching are dying in China’s universities

Teaching is regarded as of fundamental significance in a university. China has the world's largest higher education system that looks very prosperous. But she is facing a fatal challenge that more and more professors are escaping from teaching.

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What are the essential functions of universities? Since the foundation of the University of Bologna in 1088, universities have become an important indication of the power of a country. They have diverse functions such as talent recruit and training, scientific research, social services, and cultural inheritance. Among these functions, teaching is regarded as the cornerstone of a university.

Over the past decades, China’s higher education has been developing with surprising rates. The total number of universities has increased from 598 in 1978 to 2688 in 2019; meanwhile, undergraduate students from 0.86 million to 30.31 million 1. Nowadays, China has the second most universities and the largest population of undergraduate students in the world. However, she is facing a fatal challenge that more and more professors are escaping from teaching. A latest national report on China’s undergraduate education (2017) showed that 58.8% of full and associate professors did not undertake teaching 1; and > 60% of assistant professors were teaching with reluctance according to a broad survey 2. Worse still, those professors that love teaching begin to keep away from teaching 3. China's education minister Baosheng Chen gave such warnings on several occasions: “Professors who do not love teaching are not qualified.”

Why are professors unwilling to teach? We contend that the four reasons may well account for that. First is the research-dominated policies and evaluation systems, with fames and gains as their hooks. Research, a crucial factor for ranking and evaluation of universities in China, plays a far more critical role than teaching 4. As for professors, high-quality academic papers, especially SCI-indexed ones, and government-sponsored research grants, bring a pile of cash 5, or an absolute advantage on promotion to tenure or administrative positions. Imagine several to hundreds of thousands of RMB for a grant or published paper, compared with an average monthly salary of less than 6,000 RMB. However, teaching has long been undervalued and ignored, merely “being important in name”. Administrators just focus on the number of both courses and class periods professors undertake, with no attention to teaching quality. What’s ridiculous is that the quality and quantity of research is the determinant for Outstanding Teacher, a prestigious title coveted by university teachers in China. Besides, those professors who fulfill teaching responsibility earnestly are sometimes being laughed at by other professors. To teach or not to teach: this has become a common question for professors.

The constant teaching reform is the second reason that undermines professors’ passion for teaching. A wide variety of reform measures have been attempted to boost teaching, to name just a few, frequent revision of teaching schemes, curriculum development (e.g. exquisite courses, flagship courses, online micro-lectures, and national top courses) and promotion of novel teaching methods (e.g. research-oriented teaching, and flipped classroom). However, these reforms are actually packaged as the carrier of quick research outputs (e.g. educational paper, textbooks, websites, and awards) and stipulate specific schedule and quantity of outputs, with the fundamental goal of teaching left behind, that is, to achieve positive interaction between teaching and learning. Consequently, professors have to spend a lot of time and effort to meet rigid requirements of outputs instead of teaching itself.

Thirdly, the increasingly cumbersome teaching administration diminishes professors’ love for and creativity in teaching. In China’s universities, the teaching administration specifies rigorous teaching norms, curriculum evaluation, and classroom management. They cover all aspects of teaching and learning, including class attendance, course-taking and repeating, supervision of teacher performance, students’ evaluation, etc. Some universities even introduced real-time, remote camera monitoring in classrooms. Professors become assembly line workers, continually filling out forms, preparing for inspection, observation, and supervision 6.

The last straw that kills professors’ teaching enthusiasm is the learning burnout of students. A growing number of students are not so committed to exploring, experimenting or researching. This may be attributed to professors’ negative attitude to teaching, as well as constantly increasing intake of students by universities since 1999. Nevertheless, I think, these are second to the forced compromise of professors. China’s universities advocate a “for all and all for students” principle in order for a decent graduation rate, employment rate, positive rating from students, etc. Guided by these quantified indexes, professors stoop to unlimitedly reduce the learning stress of students, even to please students, further worsening the disinterest in teaching of professors.

The above reasons overlap and interweave, which is fundamentally eroding the achievement, happiness, and pride from teaching, and shaking the central position of teaching in China’s universities. Fortunately, it hadn’t gone that far before China realized that eagerness for quick success and instant benefits from higher education has deviated from its original core mission, teaching and education 7. In the past few years, China’s Ministry of Education has issued a series of compulsory regulations to encourage professors to engage in teaching fully 8-9. Several universities, for example, Nanjing University, Peking University, Sichuan University, and Yangzhou University, have introduced teaching incentives for a tiny minority of professors, including teaching contests, exclusive scholarships, promotions, awards, and honors. These regulations and measures did push more professors into the classroom, as is shown by statistics. From what we have seen, however, those classes are probably muddled through as they deliberately avoid the above issues under discussion.

In order for professors to truly go back into the classroom, we strongly appeal that China’s Ministry of Education and universities should make a comprehensively deepening reform rather than specious regulations and measures in order to construct a new evaluation system harmoniously with research and teaching as soon as possible. The new system aims not only to eliminate the factitiously separated (even opposed) situation between teaching and research in current systems but also to strengthen the central position of teaching by increasing the share of teaching in professors’ hiring, promotion and tenure. On the initial stage of the reform, four specific measures should be considered to facilitate professors to regain their lost teaching enthusiasm. Firstly, incentives to revitalize teaching need to be reinforced in material, moral and policy aspects, which are not for the minority of professors, but for all professors. Secondly, the teaching reforms should change their ways of thinking, that is, from a focus on statistics of final research outputs to the evaluation of the actual effect on both professors and students. Thirdly, teaching administrative procedures should be simplified to free professors from those trivial routines such as endless forms, reports, and supervision. Provide professors with autonomy in teaching. Fourthly, administrators should stop aiming only at graduation rate or employment rate. Instead, they should work effectively with professors to guide students with explicit goals, to inspire and push them.

References:

  1. Higher Education Evaluation Center of Ministry of Education. Report of Undergraduate Education and Teaching Quality of National Universities (Higher Education Press, Beijing, 2019).
  2. Mei, J.C. Back to teaching: The only way to reform higher education. Chin. Univ. Teach., (7), 45 (2014).
  3. Liu, H.D. How does the undergraduate education jump out of the plights between superior administrations’ concern and professors’ indifference? Guangming Daily (2019). http://epaper.gmw.cn/gmrb/html/2019-11/05/nbs.D110000gmrb_13.htm
  4. Tian, M., Su, Y. & Ru, X. Perish or publish in China: Pressures on young Chinese scholars to publish in internationally indexed journals. Publications, 4, article 9 (2016).
  5. Mallapaty, S. China bans cash rewards for publishing. Nature, 579, 18 (2020).
  6. Chu, Y. & Li, R. The burnout of China’s universities and social spiritual crisis. Educator: Higher Education Forum, (36), 1 (2015).
  7. Xi Jinping’s report to National Education Conference. Xinhua (2018). http://www.moe.gov.cn/jyb_xwfb/s6052/moe_838/201809/t20180910_348145.html
  8. Suggestions on the Accelerating Construction of High-level Undergraduate Education for the All-round Capacity Improvement of Talent Cultivation. Ministry of Education of People’s Republic of China (2018). http://www.moe.gov.cn/srcsite/A08/s7056/201810/t20181017_351887.html
  9. Suggestions on Comprehensively Deepening Reform of Undergraduate Education and Teaching for the All-round Quality Improvement of Talent Cultivation. Ministry of Education of People’s Republic of China (2019). http://www.moe.gov.cn/srcsite/A08/s7056/201910/t20191011_402759.html

Authors:

Yunjian Luo 1, Yanling Zhang 2, Zhen He 1, Qiang Xiao 3, Shaochang Wang 4, Xijun Chen 1, and Jianxiang Xu 1

1 College of Horticulture and Plant Protection, Yangzhou University, Yangzhou, China; 2 College of International Studies, Yangzhou University, Yangzhou, China; 3 Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences, Chongqing, China; 4 Pioneer Technology and Arts Academy, Dallas, Texas, U.S.

Corresponding author. E-mail: jxxu@yzu.edu.cn (J.X.) or yjluo@yzu.edu.cn (Y.L.)

Yunjian Luo

Associate Professor, Yangzhou University

I’m Yunjian Luo (罗云建), obtained a doctorate from Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 2012. My interests include (but not limited to) (1) plant ecological adaptation in the context of urbanization, and (2) urbanization and ecosystem services (e.g. forest biomass budgeting and ecosystem services flow). To date, I have received 12 research grants (e.g. National Natural Science Foundation of China, and China Postdoctoral Science Foundation), and published two books (first author) and >30 papers in international and domestic journals (e.g. PNAS, Earth System Science Data, New Phytologist, Ecology and Forest Ecology and Management).

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