Chinese Universities Not Making the Grade?

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"Many of them are very 'watery' – there's no substance," Li said. "Even in my first year of graduate school, I'm still learning Marxism. Everyone sees these classes as a waste of time, but you have to take them. It's the Ministry of Education's laws."

These classes are stipulated by higher-level authorities, and influence the autonomous power of Chinese universities, said University of Chicago professor Yang Dali.

"They do not have freedom for their curriculum," said Yang, who completed his undergraduate studies in Beijing and has lectured at Tsing Hua. "Students have to learn the same thing over and over for many years, and the result is it takes away a lot of energy and time."

Tsing Hua and Peking University both have very close ties to China's Communist Party. President Hu Jintao graduated from Tsing Hua, a legacy that is still felt on campus today.

"There is still that leadership attitude," Tsing Hua senior Cao Yuan told ABC News. "Many students here are Party members."

"In China, becoming a Communist is very difficult," Xia said. "Only the very best society members can enter the Party."

Yet the evolution of Chinese society has fostered a generation gap between the "idealistic revolutionaries" and today's students, said Xia. Li describes the new generation of college students – born after 1990 – as more self-oriented.

"They all want to pursue their own goals," she said. "They are less idealistic."

Cao also sees this entrepreneurial spirit in her circle of Tsing Hua friends, as many of them want to build their own companies.

The higher education sector in China has expanded very rapidly. According to the Ministry of Education, the literacy rate from ages 15-24 is 99 percent. Yet rapid expansion yields its own set of problems — challenges in minimizing class sizes and providing decent jobs.

"There's not much communication between me and my teacher, since the classes are too big," said Raymond Pan, a Peking University sophomore.

However, Yang maintains he and his colleagues were "extremely impressed" by their Chinese graduate students, describing them all as "hardworking and eager to learn."

"China has an incredible number of excellent students," Yang said. "Those are the ones who will be contributing to innovation in China down the road, creating dotcom companies and beyond. China has the power to do lots of things, and not just on the assembly line."

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