By Cong Cao.

A feature in the Qianjiang Evening News, a Chinese newspaper in Zhejiang, has caught my eyes: On February 28, the University of Nottingham at Ningbo admitted Feng Yang, an 18-year-old self-educated Chinese, into its doctoral program in education after an on campus interview.

It is not unprecedented that universities worldwide admit young doctoral students. For example, Terence Tao, a Chinese-Australian genius, entered Princeton University at 17, who went on to become a full professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, at the age of 25.

Last fall, the 16-year-old Chinese Zhang Xinyang started his doctoral study at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

It is quite normal that these kids pursue various subjects, although Tao and Zhang happened to major in mathematics.

It is also not unusual for those with no formal schooling to climb the academic and professional ladder successfully.

What has surprised me, if not others who have read the story, however, is that the entire interview was unfolding in front of reports from the newspaper.

When they arrived at the University at 8:30 that morning, Feng Yang, the applicant, was already there, waiting for an interview that had been scheduled at 10am. Andrys Onsman, the professor, appeared at 9:30am.

The interview was then carried out inside the hall of administration with the reporters observing through the glass. Half an hour later, both emerged from the building.

After a campus tour, Professor Onsman and Feng stopped at a café where they chatted for about an hour over green tea and coffee, again under reporters’ close eyes. The ‘pleasant’ interview, according to the newspaper, ended up with the professor paying the bill.

At 3pm, Feng Yang received an email from the University, which relayed him the good news. He is said to ‘defeat’ a rival from Uganda.

The story has made me wonder how Qianjiang Evening News knew about the interview in the first place. Who – the University, the professor, or the student – leaked it and why? What was the purpose of having or inviting the journalists over? How much have the parties involved gained from the media coverage?

I don’t mean to challenge the decision made by our colleague in Ningbo. But I feel uncomfortable with the exposure of the interview/admission to the media. Will such a situation become a routine where in one day, we academics have to put the interview of doctoral applicants and indeed the doctoral student admission under the media’s scrutiny? If so, how shall we contemplate that? This will be a really scare but not unrealistic scenario, if what happened at ourNingbocampus is to be institutionalized.

For the record, Feng Yang’s father is a researcher of early education who also runs a business inDongguan,GuangdongProvince. Feng Yang was taught by his father initially and then learned on his own. He passed special university-level examinations administrated for self-taught students. He scored a 7.5 on IELTS and his master’s degree is from a Korean university, both achieved in 2011. He will work on a project of early English language education.

 The full story on the Qianjiang Evening News can be found at:

Cong Cao is a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and an Associate Professor and Reader at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.



  1. With the competitiveness of educational institutions these days and the fee hikes sanctioned by the coalition government, I do believe this reflects a process of corporatization of institutions, including educational ones. On the plus sides it gives excellent exposure to the University of Nottingham, on the downside, if your fears are founded and come to pass, Professor, it will place undue pressure on academics to be accountable not only to our own supervisors, departments and universities, but also to an unscrupulous and prying media profession. On the one hand, we ought to have nothing to hide, and keeping processes and institutions sacred may appear outdated and even dangerous. On the other hand, is it possible to earn the right to privacy and discretion in the processes and decisions we take? If it comes to scrutiny, I think we will be able to handle it, because we develop integrity and solid rationale for our decisions which can be backed by experience, insight and evidence, better than just evidence alone in a world where objectivity and positivism themselves are becoming archaic.

  2. Hello Cong
    Joan here from the Communications and Marketing Team at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China. I am afraid there are some factual errors in your blog, not least of all your description of the interview/enrolment process. Please feel free to contact us any time you’d like some assistance with fact-checking in any of your research endeavours.

    1. Thanks, but I would appreciate it if you could point out the inaccuracies in the media reports, on which the blog is based, and, if you feel you are able to, summarize what in fact happened.

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