Chinese Universities Not Making the Grade?

VIDEO: A crush of students descending a crowded staircase leads to death and
WATCH 8 Killed in China School Stampede

In 2010, He Bin transferred from China's Zhejiang University to the University of Hong Kong (HKU) — ranked the top school in Asia according to a report released by education company, Quacquarelli Symonds.

"The experience in Hong Kong is what I can't have in mainland universities," He told ABC News. "There's more freedom. It's a totally different lifestyle."

The HKU sophomore is majoring in business administration and computer science. In her opinion, mainland universities foster very solid skill sets, leading in science and technology. However, in the areas of business, economics and finance, Hong Kong comes out ahead.

"(HKU) fosters students to pursue their own lifestyle and goals," He added.

Despite undergoing a "quiet revolution" – as claimed by China's Ministry of Education – the nation's most prestigious universities didn't make the cut for Asia's top 10 universities. But does this rank necessitate a decrease in the caliber of Chinese students?

The 2010 Asian university rankings, released by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), show Hong Kong, Korea and Japan to be leading in Asian higher education. China's Tsing Hua University was ranked number 16 and Peking University ranked number 12.

QS, a company specializing in education, used criteria such as academic peer review, employer review and student to faculty ratio to evaluate universities. Graduate employability, teaching quality and international programs were also factors.

"I always regard QS rankings with a question mark," Xia Guangzhi, Tsing Hua's deputy director for international affairs, told ABC News. "Today's top universities must create knowledge through research. Can you develop socially recognized students? Can they perform on the world stage? I worry about progress in these areas."

In 2009, China outlined a long-term education reform plan for 2010-2020, according to Frank Quosdorf of the China Education Blog. These reforms aim to modernize the existing educational system and solidify China's foundation for a learning society.

Specifically for higher education, measures include the development of "internationally renowned colleges," teaching quality improvements and expansion of scientific research.

"Chinese colleges are often perceived as socialist and nothing more," Peking student Jin Xian (Sabrina) told ABC News. "Our schools don't rank worldwide."

Li Jing earned her undergraduate degree from Tsing Hua, and is now pursuing a graduate degree in the university's journalism school. Juggling an internship at Xinhua News Agency, Li divides her time between photography, sports and her friends. She hopes one day to become a foreign correspondent.

"Tsing Hua is very stressful and there's a lot of pressure," Li told ABC News. "Everyone's scores are top-notch, they are all very ambitious and want to make a difference."

Lindsey Kreutzer, a Northwestern student who studied at Tsing Hua over the summer, had a similar impression of campus dynamics.

"It's a place where learning reigns supreme," Kreutzer told ABC News. "I think they are much more intense in their studies than we are."

Every semester, Li takes between 10 to 12 classes. Despite the quantity, she says it is not perceived as very impressive, since some of the classes require minimal work.

"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."