Education authorities in China's eastern Jiangsu province have suspended a plan to merge independent colleges with vocational institutes after student protests led to a violent confrontation with the police.
Such protests are rare in China because authorities tightly control mass movements to maintain social stability.
The Jiangsu students attending independent colleges, and their parents, see the merger as devaluing their attainment. They view a bachelor’s degree from an independent college as worth more in China’s highly competitive job market than a so-called professional bachelor’s diploma from the less prestigious vocational colleges, according to a Communist Party-controlled media outlet, the Global Times.
What the Global Times described as “the merger fiasco” originated in May 2020, when China's Education Ministry announced a plan to restructure independent colleges by merging them with vocational schools.
Yang Dali, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, told VOA Mandarin that the government's calculation is driven by two factors: Most Chinese students want to attend college to advance their job opportunities, and the country is experiencing a lack of skilled blue-collar workers. Government figures show the number of working-age people is decreasing, a demographic change that is due in part to population controls such as the now-abandoned one-child policy.
On June 4, the Education Ministry announced that it would enforce the merger in 13 independent colleges, including five from Jiangsu Province.
The next day, students from five independent colleges gathered on their campuses to protest.
On June 6, more independent college students protested on their campuses. Video showed there were physical conflicts between the police and the students at Nanjing Normal University's Zhongbei College in Danyang. VOA Mandarin reported students there were injured.
According to a Danyang police announcement on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, students had "illegally detained the dean of the college, surnamed Chang, for more than 30 hours."
Also, students had "shouted verbal abuse and blocked law enforcement", according to the police statement.
"To uphold the campus order and safety of relevant individuals, the police took necessary measures to [free] the individuals who are trapped, and they were immediately sent to the hospital," the police department said. Social media clips showed police using batons and pepper spray on students.
On the evening of June 7, Jiangsu’s education department announced it was suspending the merger after “thousands of students submitted a petition against the plan for fear of losing their competitiveness in the job market,” reported the Global Times. And early on June 8, all five colleges in Jiangsu posted the suspension of merger plans on their official Weibo accounts.
Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces also announced the suspension of planned mergers, after protests in colleges in Zhejiang Province, including Zhejiang University of Technology Zhijiang College, Zhejiang Gongshang University Hangzhou Business School, and Hangzhou Dianzi University Information & Technology College.
VOA contacted education authorities in Jiangsu and Zhejiang about the protests but did not hear back.
Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer who is a visiting professor at the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago, told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview that after the protests, Chinese authorities are taking a step back to "maintain stability." According to Chinese Ministry of Education, the country will have more than 9 million college graduates in 2021, and more than 10 million in 2022.
The merger suspension “is just a concession on the surface. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party's first consideration is not the rights of students, but the need to maintain stability, especially with CCP's centenary coming up," he said of the July celebrations. "There's no guarantee that they will not go after these students afterwards."
The official media outlet reported that five students it interviewed on Tuesday said they want the merger terminated, not just suspended.
According to the BBC, "independent colleges are co-funded by universities and social organizations or individuals. Students who do not get the required exam scores to enter university can apply to these institutions, where they can still graduate with a university degree – but at higher tuition costs.”
In 2020, the admissions score for Nanjing Normal University was 603, while the score for the affiliated Zhongbei College was 326, the Global Times reported. The annual tuition for Nanjing Normal University is $780. Zhongbei College charges $2,474.
The Global Times said that if independent colleges merge with vocational schools, the students' diplomas will become "professional bachelor's degrees" rather than bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degrees. The degrees currently granted by independent colleges are considered superior to vocational degrees in China's highly competitive job market.
According to the Global Times, the Ministry of Education said on Sunday that the independent colleges will still offer general bachelor’s degrees for their current students, as was promised when they enrolled.
Yang told VOA Mandarin that the frustration of students and their parents at these independent colleges are understandable.
"They are paying more to get bachelor's degrees. Now the authorities want to change their degrees halfway without consulting these students," he said in a phone interview. “In short, they didn't take the students' interests into consideration during the policy-making process."
"To be honest, sometimes a college graduate won't necessarily have a better time looking for a job compared to a skilled worker,” Yang told VOA Mandarin. “I think the government wants to strengthen vocational education and maintain China's advantage in skilled workers."