China’s universities are improving, but that’s little consolation for their miserable students

Junior college students line up outside a job fair in Zhengzhou, Henan province
Junior college students line up outside a job fair in Zhengzhou, Henan province
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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China’s higher education system got a big boost this week when the top 100 of annual Asia Universities Rankings included 18 mainland Chinese schools, a 20% increase from last year. But if you ask China’s university students, things could be a whole lot better.

On the Sina Weibo microblogging network, 9,805 students weighed in yesterday with a lengthy list of gripes about their universities. The “do not come to my university” discussion topic was filled with complaints about disgusting yet expensive food in the cafeteria, unbalanced gender ratios, and the lack of spare time because of the required study groups in the evening. Some schools also cut the electricity and internet at night to prevent the students from staying up too late.

What the students couldn’t stand the most was the absence of air conditioning. A survey conducted by China Youth Daily last year showed that 94.3% participants’ colleges don’t have AC in their dorms. Students in Beijing Normal University even wrote a song to their headmaster begging for it. And hundreds of students in South China Normal University, where the temperature reached 93°F (34°C) last week, are planning a “Naked Run” to lobby for getting some cooler air at their school. Even the state-run newspaper People’s Daily provided a list of schools with air conditioning to “help the students choose.”

Students sleep on the roof because their dorm is too hot.
Students sleep on the roof because their dorm is too hot.
Image: Sina Weibo

Some people blame the poor living conditions in China’s universities on their heavily bureaucratic systems. Most money is spent on grand administration buildings, rather than benefiting the students. “The universities don’t belong to their students, but the officials that run them,” said columnist Wang Chuantao.

Still, air conditioning might be the least of Chinese students’ problems. Many of them hoped for a future in university where they could finally be free from the massive pressures they faced in high school. But the reality is that China has a glut of college graduates (paywall), with around six times as many people graduating in 2011 as a decade earlier.

President Xi Jinping issued a call this week for more vocational education to create a bigger workforce of technical workers—a major shift from the government’s push to create as many college graduates as possible. But that won’t help the current students who are already enrolled—and are sweating their way through a long, hot summer.