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Incentives key to China’s effort to upgrade higher education, Stanford expert says

August 18, 2016
By Clifton B. Parker
China’s education system is strong in many ways, but shows weaknesses in college. (Paul Burns/Getty Images)
China’s education system is strong in many ways, but shows weaknesses in college. (Paul Burns/Getty Images)
Education scholar Prashant Loyalka says that incentives focused on faculty pay and student study could boost China’s higher education institutions.

China can improve its higher education system by introducing incentives for students and teachers so they take learning more seriously, a Stanford professor says. Under the current system, college students are essentially guaranteed a diploma, offering little motivation to excel.

Prashant Loyalka, an assistant research professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, led a forthcoming study that found that Chinese college freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began with academic and critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia, but showed almost no improvement in such skills after two years of college. Critical thinking skills are typically defined as the ability to make clear and well-reasoned analyses and evaluations of information.

Loyalka, also a center research fellow at the Rural Education Action Program in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, recently published an article on how teacher incentives boost student learning in China’s primary schools. Some of the findings could be applicable to China’s universities, he said.

Stanford News Service recently interviewed Loyalka:

What are the strengths of the Chinese educational system?

China’s education system is strong in many ways. By the end of junior high school and high school, students in urban areas display high levels of academic skills like math, science, language arts and English. They also show very high levels of higher-order thinking skills, such as critical thinking and quantitative reasoning. Students from both urban and rural areas tend to be incredibly hardworking and disciplined as well. This is partly due to the fact that Chinese students and their parents spend a lot of time and resources on their studies, both inside and outside of school.

Policymakers in China have also done a great job universalizing access to primary school and getting kids to at least start junior high school.

The weaknesses?

Perhaps the most glaring weakness is that the quality of education is low for the millions of kids who live in rural China. The majority of students in rural China are unlikely to complete high school. About one-third drop out of junior high school. Furthermore, the vast majority of students also do not appear to learn very much after primary school. China shuttles millions of rural kids into vocational high schools that, as several of our studies show, fail to build students’ cognitive and non-cognitive abilities.

Another big weakness is that students, on average, do not improve their academic or high-order thinking skills during college. One of the reasons for this could be that students are essentially guaranteed to graduate college on time and correspondingly have few incentives to work hard during college.

What are the main highlights of your forthcoming study?

In 2014, I led a pilot study to measure the skill levels and gains of engineering and computer science students in China, Russia and the United States. Entering university freshmen in China were roughly three years ahead of U.S. students in critical-thinking skills and roughly two years ahead of Russian students in critical thinking, math and physics skills.

After two years of study, students in the U.S. and Russia closed about half the skill gap with students in China.

The reduction in the skills gap between countries was due to the fact that while U.S. and Russian students made positive skill gains, Chinese students made no skill gains over two years.

I am now in the midst of conducting a much larger study, using nationally random, representative samples of engineering and computer science students in China, Russia and other developed and developing countries. The goals of the study are not just to measure how much students learn in university, but even more to explain what types of factors can contribute to increases in learning.

Why are China’s high schools doing better than their colleges?

Students in China have to study extremely hard if they want to go to college. There are a limited number of spots in academic high schools and colleges, and students have to pass highly competitive exams to get into each level of schooling. In order to prepare students for college, academic high schools offer a rigorous curriculum in math, science, Chinese and English. Academic high school administrators and teachers maintain a highly disciplined environment in which students study long hours in school and do lots of homework and tutoring outside of school. Academic high school teachers are also highly incentivized to make sure students do well.

What are some possible reforms?

China may wish to consider introducing a series of incentives into universities that make students take learning, and faculty take teaching, even more seriously. For faculty, incentives that reward better teaching and are linked to promotion and pay may be needed.

For students, it is likely that they need more incentives to study their course material during college. The vast majority of students do not have significant pressure to show that they learned the course material. They are given a “pass” for their different courses no matter whether they learned the material or not; they also almost all graduate after four years. By contrast, the graduation rates for STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] majors in the U.S. are much lower.

China could also revisit its university curricula and instruction. If, for example, as our study shows, engineering students are already equipped with high levels of math and physics skills before they enter university, offering a more diverse liberal arts curriculum may be a more cost-effective use of resources. Instruction in universities also tends to be passive and rote – students at the university level would likely benefit from a more dynamic interaction with professors than they currently have.

How does the Chinese leadership view education’s impact on the national economy?

China’s leaders are clear that the health of the national economy is tied to the health of its education system. At this point, they appear especially open to improving the quality of higher education. I believe that a lot of attention could continue to be paid to improving the quality of education in rural areas, however, and also expanding access to academic high school and college for rural students.