Shanghai International Studies University: Present and Future Educational Trends

Rhea Ann Ashmore
University of Montana-Missoula
Eve Malo
Western Montana College-UM

Present and Future Educational Trends

During the academic year of 1992-1993 and spring term 1994, we, respectively, represented The University of Montana as Faculty Exchange Scholars at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), Shanghai, People's Republic of China. As we beheld dramatic educational changes in this brief period of time, the experience was an unforgettable one. This article presents academic information, trends, and reforms witnessed at SISU.


Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), established in December, 1949, is one of 36 key institutions of higher learning under the direction of the State Education Commission of the People's Republic of China. A key university admits only the top students in the nation based on a three-day rigorous examination. Because of the high academic standards, key universities are held in high esteem and admission is competitive.

SISU is a foreign language university encompassing multiple disciplines, mainly humanities applicable to foreign affairs. Areas of study are language and literature in English, Russian, German, French, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, International Journalism, International Economics and Law, International Trade, International Accounting, Chinese as a Foreign Language, Foreign Affairs Management, and Educational Communications and Technology. Undergraduate students are required to major in one foreign language and minor in a second foreign language. Upon graduation they are appointed to positions in accordance with the centralized placement program. Master's degrees are offered in English, Russian, German, French, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Linguistics, and Comparative Literature. Doctoral degrees are offered in English, Russian, French, and Linguistics. SISU is also affiliated with the College of Adult Education, the College of Journalism and Communications, the College of International Business Administration, the Faculty of Social Sciences, the Advanced Teacher Training Center, the Preparatory Department, the Foreign Language Training Center, and the Foreign Language Middle School. Full-time enrollment is more than 3,000 students, part-time enrollment is 25,000 students, and over 200 international students are also enrolled.

Academic Structure and Organization

We taught in the largest department at SISU--the English department. Their mission is to prepare students to be college and university teachers, interpreters, translators, and researchers. During the first and second years, the students receive strict and comprehensive training in basic language skills including listening, speaking, reading, and writing in the English language. In the third and fourth years, the curriculum emphasizes language skills, composition, and translation. Upon graduating, the students earn a bachelor's degree in either linguistics or literature.

Approximately 150 Chinese English majors were enrolled at each level--freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior--in addition there were 50 graduate students. Approximately 50 percent of these students were selected from the Shanghai vicinity; the remainder were students representing a variety of provinces. Obviously, their backgrounds were quite different from English majors in western countries; however their command of the English language was excellent as well as their knowledge of literature from English-speaking countries--England, Australia, New Zealand, the United States.

Students were tightly integrated into small classroom collectives (around 20 students) who studied together as a unit and were assigned one "homeroom." The instructors, not the students, moved from classroom to classroom to teach their courses. Each unit had a class monitor who was selected in the freshman year by the administration. The monitor organized class outings, served as the spokesperson for the class, provided constructive criticism to the instructors, and advised classroom peers.

Academic schedules were largely determined on a group basis; there was relatively little course choice. The senior English majors at SISU were required to take Reading and Writing, Video, Second Foreign Language (French, Japanese, or German), Translation, English Literature, Research Methodology, Physical Training, and Socialist Construction. The students were also required to choose two of four electives--English Rhetoric, Interpersonal Communications, American Culture, or History of the Communist Movement, The final requirements for graduation were writing a senior thesis passing the National Competency Exam in English which includes sections on reading, writing, listening, and note taking; and passing final proficiency exams constructed by members of the English Department.

Student Life

Students lived in unheated, barren, concrete-floored dormitories. Seven students were assigned to one room the size of a typical American double dormitory room. The students were expected to bring their own bowls and utensils to the dining hall, wash them after eating, handwash their laundry (dried on inside and outside lines), and study with limited access to resources plus inadequate lighting (lights were turned off at 10:00 p.m).

Regarding recreation, students frequently took "wushui," the noon nap, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. In the late afternoons, volleyball, tennis, football (soccer), badminton, and jogging occurred. When not experiencing respiratory problems, we, too, jogged on the university track and were frequently invited to play tennis or engage in conversation with the Chinese students.

Overall, the students were friendly and curious about the United States. In addition, they were diligent, intelligent, and eager to learn. This is a reflection on China's educational system which eliminates via a series of exams large numbers of ordinary and low achievers and rewards those who perform well. Likened to a funnel, only the best students can attend the key universities.

Educational Tradition

The Chinese word for teacher is "laoshi," a term signifying respect and deference. The teacher is expected to take a strong interest in the development of each student as a whole person. The teacher not only transmits information, but also prepares students socially and morally as citizens of the community and the nation. According to Hu and Grove (1991):

...students are taught that they must fit harmoniously into the overall scheme of human relations, a scheme in which awareness of the group takes precedence over the desires of the individual and in which emphasis is given to the beneficial aspects of hierarchical relationships. (p. 79)

Chinese values affect educational tradition. When asked to state ten Chinese values, the students created lists in which three fundamental values emerged--collectivism, large power distance, and intragroup harmony. "Collectivism is characterized by individuals subordinating their personal goals to the goals of some collectives" (Triandis, Brislin, & Hui, 1988, p. 271). A key belief is that the smallest unit of survival is the collective. At SISU the collective was the class. For example, the Class 4 senior English majors, stable since the freshman year, traveled together as a group from class to class, lived together in a common dormitory, and socialized as a unit.

"Power distance" indicates the extent to which the people accept the fact that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally among individuals. Large power distance characterizes people who are comfortable with an unequal distribution of power and do not try to bring about a more nearly equal distribution. Our Chinese students were guardedly optimistic about their future as SISU policy states that all students who graduate are guaranteed quality employment upon graduation. Many students were eager to work for joint venture companies, Chinese companies merged with companies from other nations. Others sought traditional careers--educators, translators, interpreters. Indeed, all of our English majors graduated, and all of them were awarded career positions.

Intragroup harmony characterizes maintaining harmonious relationships with family members, close friends, and colleagues. Our students rarely expressed their personal opinions during class; they tended to be an attentive, respectful, passive audience taking copious notes and then departing. Perhaps "loss of face" contributed to this classroom behavior. According to Hu & Grove (1991), "loss of face occurs when a person's set of claims is implicitly or explicitly called into question by others" (p. 115). So, rather than face embarrassment by asking a foolish appearing question or making a statement that would unmask the individual or detract from the student's role, student participation was minimal.


Education is undergoing changes in China. This is a direct response to current economic and political changes including moving from a socialist economy to a "socialist market economy." This blend of socialism and capitalism results in a more self-directed economy which requires more choice for students to prepare far the workforce:

In fall 1993, educational reform affected SISU. Due in part to SISU's desire to provide a more comprehensive education, the university instituted a fee system. Rather than provide historically free education for those who qualify academically, SISU now requires candidates to pay tuition and miscellaneous fees. A scholarship system was also established providing full, half, or quarter reimbursement. Initially, the families pay the tuition. If awarded a scholarship, the student's family is reimbursed. Families who cannot afford to pay the tuition may borrow from SISU at no interest for the freshman year only. An interest rate is charged to upper classmen.

Student reaction to tuition-charging measures is mixed. Dupont Zhou, a male Chinese student, wrote:

As we know, educational funds which are considered a heavy burden to the fiscal budget are allocated by the state. Yet the funds are so limited that teaching equipment remains inadequate and teachers are poorly paid. Under such circumstances, China's education is seriously hampered and restrained. This, no doubt, will lead to the degradation of the quality of education. Therefore, this is the high time for change.

Some leading Chinese universities including Beijing University, SISU, and Shanghai University of Finance have a new way to solve the problem. High school students now are requested to pay tuition upon their university entrance. The money raises through tuition can be used to improve the educational environment. This is beneficial to the universities as well as to the students themselves. But there still exists a common fear that students from poor families might be shunned. Such fear is unnecessary. Along with tuition, the universities have formed measures to aid poor students. For example, no-interest loans are available for the economically-crippled students. They can pay back the loans when they earn money after graduation. A universal scholarship is also available for excellent students. The tuition system will push every student to work hard instead of idling time. This will ultimately enhance the quality of education.

On the other hand, Song Fang, a female Chinese student wrote:

Since China implemented the open-door policy, reform has become a common phenomenon. Reform is desirable, but if it goes to extremes, if everything must be measured by money, our goal will go astray. When most Chinese people are unable to afford high fees, charging tuition is not an appropriate measure.

A fast growing economy requires a large number of intellectuals, and the top universities should train them. Everybody, poor and rich, should have equal opportunity to receive a higher education. If tuition is too high, many talented peasant students will be denied the chance of attending key universities. And when they do come to Shanghai, even though the university provides financial aid, the high prices shock them. They feel humbled compared to the city students.

Another educational reform focuses on curriculum. A credit system rather than a set program of study has been initiated. Students admitted in fall 1993 are now required to earn 160 credits for a bachelor's degree. One credit is equivalent to one hour in class per week per semester. Also, students must now declare both a major and a minor. More course offerings, including more electives, are available.

Student services have also improved. In the past SISU assigned students to specific interviews for jobs, and the agency selected the candidate from those interviewed. Those not chosen were assigned further interviews until placed. Today, career placement models the western approach--students apply for jobs that interest them. SISU has created a Career Services office to assist students with career placements.

Overall, students welcome the idea of more choice. Formerly, students accepted the responsibility of working for five to six years with their "assigned" employer in return for free education. Today, SISU is providing China with graduates who can fulfill the changing needs of the socialist market economy. Students are eager to work for joint venture companies which provide a higher standard of living and enhanced flexibility for the future.

As professors trained with a western approach, we have mixed reactions regarding recent reforms. The element of choice and a broader, diverse educational background strengthens the graduates. However, we foresee a problem based on the new emphasis on the individual. Traditionally, China has practiced the values of collectivism, large power distance, and intragroup harmony. The family and the work unit were paramount. Never before has the spotlight been on individual freedom, equal opportunity, and progress. The movement away from the unit to the self will have significant repercussions in a society that is not based on western values and traditions. As the saying goes, "The good old days are now."


Hu, W., & Grove, C. L. (1991). Encountering the Chinese. Yarmouth, MA: Intercultural Press.

Triandis, H. C., Brislin, R., & Hui, C. H. (1988). Cross-cultural training across the individualism-collectivism divide. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 12 (3), 269-289.

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