- Property Ownership and Private Higher Education in China: On What Grounds? by Spring Su
When funding shortages forced the Chinese government to legalize private education in 1978, it caused an explosive growth in that sector across the country, particularly from around 1990. Relatively little attention has been paid to the phenomenon, however, even though private education at all levels has profoundly transformed Chinese society by creating much more access to education, at least for those who can pay. The first book–length study of Chinese private education’s renaissance was Jing Lin’s Social Transformation and Private Education in China (Praeger, 1999), which I reviewed for this journal in 2001. As the title indicates, it was an optimistic rendering of the new sector’s first decade of growth. Now Spring Su has produced a study that draws on Lin’s work and that of other scholars to paint a more sobering portrait of the sector’s second decade. Her title points to the key issue concerning whether and how much Chinese private education will expand in the future: namely, the question of private property rights. Using statistics, policy analysis, legal arguments, case studies, and interviews with private higher education personnel, Su, a fellow at the Wah Ching Center of Research on Education in China at the University of Hong Kong, makes a strong case for transferable ownership rights becoming applied to private higher education institutions (HEIs). What she does not consider is that this application might jeopardize the government’s grip on higher education, and perhaps the country in general, which makes the granting of such rights unlikely. [End Page 405]
Su opens with the observation that the Chinese government is now more comfortable with the existence of private education (p. 2), toward which it used to have a suspicious attitude. She notes the higher education sector’s “lack of efficiency” due to an “absence of competitiveness throughout the country’s public universities,” implying, like Jing Lin, that increased educational choice will promote better functioning among all participants. The government continues to resist “religious influence and cultural imperialism,” of which Sino–foreign educational ventures might be bearers, and thus needs to work out a balance between expanding private higher education and retaining its control. There are many issues in all this to be resolved, above all the question of private property ownership by the founders and directors of private universities (p. 3).
The focus of Su’s ire throughout her study is the 2002 Law on the Promotion of Privately Run Education, which apparently replaced the 1997 law on what was then called “education run by social forces” that represented China’s first attempt at regulating private schools. Article 32 of new law ensures private ownership of a school, but article 8 prohibits those running a school from withdrawing their capital or operating reserves; furthermore, article 59 states that if the school is dissolved, all remaining assets are to be disposed of by government authorities. Therefore, Chinese private HEIs really only have usufruct rights, which are “neither permanent nor transferable.” Su claims this leads to cases of “short–term malpractice” on the part of schools’ management (pp. 3–4), a danger that makes the Chinese general public as well as the government leery of private education. Thus, the whole book is an argument for transferable rights to private schools, clarity regarding such rights, and the right to transfer private school ownership (p. 5).
Su cites statistics from 2010’s Ministry of Education (MOE) website (available at http://www.moe.edu.cn) that in 2008, there were 640 accredited private HEIs authorized to grant BAs or diplomas. Of these, 322 were independent colleges. She says another 866 private institutions provide training or self–study programs (p. 6). These figures are indeed listed on the MOE’s website as of November 2011. She does not explain, however, that a non–state HEI means a private institution without government support or control...