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Chinese Universities, Media Climb Steep Learning Curve to 21st Century

By Yang Ge
Zhang Taofu is deputy dean for graduate and undergraduate affairs at the Fudan University School of Journalism. Photo: Yang Ge/Caixin
Zhang Taofu is deputy dean for graduate and undergraduate affairs at the Fudan University School of Journalism. Photo: Yang Ge/Caixin

(Shanghai) — Education and the media have both changed dramatically in China over the last three decades, and nowhere are those changes on greater display than at Shanghai’s Fudan University, home to one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious journalism schools.

Academia in China has undergone a radical transformation since the 1980s, as China tries to create a system that can make meaningful contributions to the global advancement of knowledge. But the challenges are huge in a country where plagiarism is still quite common, factionalism exists within institutions, and academic papers are often published in magazines whose main criteria is whether the author is willing to pay their fees.

At the same time, China’s media are trying to become more commercial, moving away from the old days when journalists were the “throat and tongue” of the Communist Party. Despite their best efforts, traditional state-owned newspapers, magazines and TV stations are being rapidly overtaken by private-sector new media that know how to cater to a younger generation.

To offer some insight to the changes taking place in both realms, Caixin Global sat down with Zhang Taofu, deputy dean for graduate and undergraduate affairs at the Fudan School of Journalism. Zhang discussed steps his department is taking to remain relevant in the 21st century and gave his views on the future of Chinese media. The following are translated excerpts of that interview.

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Zhang works at his desk at the Fudan University School of Journalism. Zhang says traditional state-owned news outlets should be encouraged to compete with private media to prevent them from becoming “zombie media.” Photo: Yang Ge/Caixin

Caixin: In recent years Chinese academia has had some scandals involving plagiarism. The state of academic research also isn’t too high since people can publish articles simply by paying magazines. How do you see all this?

Zhang Taofu: These things all involve academic misconduct, an issue that has been quite serious in recent years and reflects problems with academic standards. At the deepest level, there are serious problems with academic skills. Within universities, many people pursue academics for personal gain. A small number will take risks without any scruples.

In the internet age, academic misconduct also becomes magnified and is easier to see. It’s not that scandals are more numerous now, but rather that the conditions for spotting scandals have improved. Many institutions of higher learning have mechanisms now to address academic misconduct. Fudan has always taken this issue very seriously, from the university to the journalism school. The university has a committee of senior professors who are responsible for promoting policy and meting out punishment in cases of academic misconduct.

As far as the journalism school is concerned, the university’s system is relatively comprehensive and therefore we can simply execute its policies. We have a zero-tolerance policy for academic misconduct. Sometimes public judgment and professional judgment aren’t the same, and sometimes there is some deviation. When there’s deviation, you should go with the professional judgment.

The current education system and the system when you were a student are quite different. How have things changed?

The environment has experienced big changes. I was part of a traditional education environment. When I was a student, we mostly used classrooms and the library. Now people mostly use the libraries for tests, and usually there aren’t many students. Sometimes there are more workers in the library than students. That’s not to say that today’s students don’t work hard, but rather that today’s students can use computers and databases for their studies.

Another big difference is in the way people study. With so much knowledge now, everyone puts more emphasis on quantity. The depth of understanding of knowledge is very shallow. In the past, even though we received relatively less knowledge, it was still very deep. Now information is abundant and not systematized. Today’s students are scattered and disorganized; they don’t do enough in-depth study. It’s regressed a little. The current generation has the best conditions for studying, including all kinds of convenience. But they don’t receive a deep understanding of knowledge, and everything is fragmented and superficial.

When you were studying, only 5% of high school students could go to a university. What’s the ratio like now?

Nationally, it’s more than 50%. Back then, it was education for the elite, but now it’s for the masses.

How have international exchanges changed since you were a student?

At that time, very few Chinese went abroad to study. Now 80% of undergraduates from the Fudan journalism school go abroad to study, the highest percentage in the university. Some are short-term, others are long-term.

The Fudan journalism school has an interesting divide where professors above 40 are mostly Fudan graduates and people under 35 are from other schools. Why is that?

In the past, anyone could stay at the school (to teach) with a Ph.D. But now, people with Ph.D.s from Fudan aren’t allowed to stay and teach here. It’s a Fudan policy. You can get your Ph.D. from Fudan, but after graduation, you need to go elsewhere to teach. In this way, you could have a chance to come back to Fudan to teach. This is to prevent “inbreeding.” Harvard and Yale also don’t allow their own Ph.D. students to stay at the school. So we are trying to follow the overseas example.

The journalism school has recently introduced a professional master’s program for people interested in journalism careers, complementing its traditional, more-academic master’s program. What are the origins of this move?

The main impetus for this program came from the Ministry of Education. The ministry pointed out that in the past, all graduate students were studying for academic degrees. But when it came time to look for jobs, the ratio of jobs in academia were relatively small. The majority of graduates were going to work in more-traditional jobs. Thus the Education Ministry said we need to start distinguishing different streams in order to develop more people with practical skills. This was a policy that came from the top. When we were executing the policy, we focused on developing students’ practical abilities. We also have another special area at Fudan, which is our double master’s degree in communications. This is a very international program; most of the students are foreigners.

In terms of numbers, what’s the ratio of professional master’s-degree students now to traditional academic master’s-degree students?

The professional master’s-degree students already outnumber the academic ones. There are more than 60 professional master’s students each year, versus 40 academic master’s. That’s a ratio of 3-to-2. The professional master’s-degree students pay 100,000 yuan ($14,900) for a two-year program. The academic master’s-degree program is free.

How do you see the Chinese media developing over the next decade? Will traditional media still exist, will they transform, or will they die out?

In a place like China, the traditional media definitely won’t die. But they will definitely continue to exist in a way that’s different from now. Senior policymakers don’t want to see “change for the sake of change,” so they are promoting a “new form of mainstream media” that will see traditional merge with new media.

Do you believe there will be “zombie” media that don’t make any money but continue to be propped up with government support in the future?

The outlook for media without any influence, without any value, is hard to say. So you really have to find a way to bring life to these traditional media; you can’t let them become “zombie media.” The best way is to enable them to compete with private companies. So the government is consciously supporting some mainstream media groups.

Contact reporter Yang Ge (geyang@caixin.com)

Caixin Hot Pot is a regular feature that introduces you to the colorful array of players in today’s China — from the leaders of top U.S. companies doing business here to the migrant woman selling noodles from a pushcart.

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