Qiang ZHA

Art Education Student at Tsinghua University. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

China’s university system, the world’s largest, has the fifth-largest international-student enrollment in the world. Once funded solely by the state, today universities must raise an increasing proportion of their operating funds from such sources as tuition fees, research grants, endowment gifts, and income from university-run enterprises.

As China’s economy has liberalized and grown, enrollments in China’s institutes of higher education have been shooting up, with an unprecedented expansion just in the past decade. In 1990, only 3.4 percent of the age cohort between eighteen and twenty-two benefited from any form of higher education. This percentage reached 7.2 percent in 1995, 12.5 percent in 2000, 15 percent in 2002 (thus reaching the internationally acknowledged threshold of higher education for that age cohort), and 23 percent in 2007, with roughly 27 million students enrolled in 2008 in what has become the world’s largest higher education system. The expansion of access to higher education in all subjects is an essential component to developing skilled workers who will be able to contribute to China’s global ambitions. In fact, China is unique in educational history as it simultaneously pushes for rapid enrollment growth, institutes new governance structures, and seeks to build world-class universities.

Decentralization & Diversification

This rise in China’s higher education system in the twenty-first century is qualitatively different from the rise it experienced in the 1950s under Soviet tutelage. The growth back then occurred within the parameters of detailed planning for a socialist economy and resulted in highly specialized institutions that trained personnel for each sector of the economy. The whole system was regulated from above, with minimal autonomy given to individual institutions or regions. Now the Chinese government has been gradually moving away from a centralized model of governance, in which it controlled the detailed operations of higher education institutions. As the numbers of institutions and students grew, it became increasingly difficult for the state to exercise control in a way that was compatible with the growing market economy.

As a result, the government began to develop the legal framework that would designate universities as independent legal entities and to establish the mechanism on which the universities’ managerial autonomy could rest. The legal framework would allow universities to set their own strategic goals and define their own academic focus (including the establishment of new specializations) in order to respond to the increasing competition, and also to control their own resources. The architecture for a less centralized higher education system began to emerge in the late 1990s and was enshrined in the Higher Education Law that took effect on 1 January 1999.

A new and decentralized higher education structure, in which provincial governments play principal roles, has taken shape in China. The boundaries among different types of institutions have blurred, with universities now being allowed to add programs of their own choice. A result of these changes is the impulse toward more comprehensive patterns of knowledge, with all higher education institutions seeking to broaden their curricular coverage. This has involved quite a remarkable development of social sciences and humanities programs in institutions originally designated to teach highly specialized technical subjects. The rationale of current reform seems to be to make “comprehensive universities” the norm, and to a large extent this trend has been driven by market forces that reward expanded enrollments.

The diversification also has implications for the financing mechanisms of higher education. Chinese universities used to be solely funded by the state, but today they must raise an increasing proportion of their operating funds from such non-governmental sources as tuition fees, research grants, services, endowment gifts, and income from university-run enterprises. Strategically, the state now concentrates resources on a small number of elite universities, while encouraging all other institutions to mobilize local resources through student fees and income-generating activities.

The Ambition for World-Class Status

This dramatic change in the size of China’s higher education system also has qualitative dimensions. The Chinese government launched programs, such as Project 21/1 in 1993, to enable one hundred top universities to reach world-class (elite) standards in the twenty-first century. Since 1998, Project 98/5 has been providing additional funding to a smaller number of top institutions. (It was named for the date of the centennial anniversary of Peking University, May 1998, since the project was announced shortly after that event.) The universities included in Project 98/5 were initially nine in number and have expanded to thirty-nine in 2009. The country’s two top universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University, are exclusively funded by the central government (getting ¥1.8 billion each for the first three-year cycle of the program), while the rest are funded by the Ministry of Education with matching funds from multiple sources at lower levels. The top echelon universities of the system enjoy significant advantages from the extra resources provided under the elite-university development projects and carry out most of the graduate education and research across the whole higher education system.

Chinese higher education institutions are being structured in a hierarchical way according to their functions and goals. On the top are the national elite universities that focus on research, mainly those in Project 21/1 and particularly those in Project 98/5. They educate the majority of doctoral students, in addition to master’s- and bachelor-degree students. They are designated to function as the “national team” that will move China’s capacity for innovation to a higher level, play a leading role in performing research activities that are of great importance to national development and security, and to collaborate in international research efforts as well. The universities at the second rank are oriented to both research and teaching, mainly educating master’s and bachelor students, with doctoral students only in a few specific disciplines. The universities at the third rank are those that are fundamentally teaching-oriented, training mainly undergraduates. Finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy is a new tier of institutions, the higher vocational college, providing only two-to-three-year sub-degree programs. Their number has grown rapidly since 1999, when the central government delegated authority over approving and establishing such colleges to local governments at the provincial level.

The last two categories constitute the majority of China’s higher education institutions, and they have increased their enrollment dramatically, taking on the main burden of enrollment expansion while the elite universities have played a mainly symbolic role. The deliberate policy of creating a hierarchical structure of higher education, combined with the integration of curricular offerings, serves China’s needs to address both global competition and domestic demands. With this approach China seems to be able to maintain the world’s largest higher education system, and nurture a few players at a global level.

Academic Autonomy

Recent reforms have made possible a highe
r degree of autonomy than has been seen since the revolution of 1949. University autonomy is usually viewed as an important condition for the protection of academic freedom, and there can be little doubt that academic freedom has also increased greatly in recent years in China. Nevertheless, China’s socialist government is still intensely concerned about maintaining “stability” in the face of the rapid economic transformation under way, and it still exercises considerable control over China’s press and publishing industry. For their part, Chinese scholars have never found it easy to limit themselves to critical comment in their fields of study; academic criticism tends to overflow into political and social arenas, as happened in the tragedy of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Given these opposing tendencies, the road to academic freedom is likely to be an arduous one.

In spite of the constraints on academic freedom that the government places on them, China’s universities have become global actors, capable of holding their own in international circles of research and scholarship in many fields of the natural sciences as well as in some social and professional areas of knowledge. They already have well-established patterns for offering support to countries in Africa through the training of students and through bilateral projects, and they have recently begun a series of dialogues with leading scientists and intellectuals in India to share ideas and perspectives on Asian responsibility for global development. It remains to be seen when they will be accepted as genuinely equal partners with universities in Europe and North America.

Characteristics of an Emerging Chinese University Model

Despite controversies around quality and equity issues in the rapid expansion of Chinese higher education, as well as some continuing constraints on academic freedom, a number of characteristics can be detected that might signal the emergence of a Chinese model of the university. China has a rich history of education, and some aspects of its traditional education philosophy and pedagogy are evident in its contemporary methods of teaching. As more and more Chinese universities organize their curriculum around a core of basic subjects and emphasize interdisciplinary education, they are deliberately connecting reform to their own educational traditions.

China is perhaps one of the first systems to take a bold step to concentrate public research resources in an effort to create world-class universities. Its world-class university development plans, Project 21/1 and Project 98/5, might be seen to have triggered a worldwide competition. Related to this competition, the Academic Ranking of World Universities, launched by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University since 2003, has quickly gained international prominence. It is now widely viewed as providing a legitimate evaluation of universities worldwide.

Chinese universities exhibit a high level of engagement with national and local development and thus can be seen as providing services for economic and community development. This can be regarded as a legacy from the planned economy, which formed self-enclosed higher education “systems” that related to various sectors in the economy, but it turns out to be a strength in the market context. The recent expansion in size has dramatically enhanced the capacity at both the institutional and system level to have an impact on national and local social development and economic growth. Most Chinese universities are engaged in unique industry–university relations or the so-called integration of production, teaching, and research, which enables the universities to contribute directly to building China’s capacity for innovation capacity and its infrastructure. In particular, top universities are facilitating a transformation of the national economy from one with a solely industrial focus to a more knowledge-based economy through a variety of ways, including the creation of a series of science and technology parks in their proximities, which combine education, research, and industry. The most famous of these, Zhongguancun Science and Technology Zone, which is often called “China’s Silicon Valley,” surrounds China’s two most renowned universities, Peking and Tsinghua, in northwestern Beijing.

In addition, China has been extremely active in internationalizing higher education. The past thirty years witnessed 1.2 million Chinese students and scholars studying abroad, among whom nearly 320,000 have completed their study programs and returned to China, with the result that the majority of leaders and many faculty in top universities have had international academic exposure. China has also recently become the world’s fifth-ranking destination for international students. Chinese universities have responded to globalization in other ways as well, such as through active participation in international university consortia. For instance, Peking University is an active member of the prestigious International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU), along with the Australian National University, ETH Zurich, the National University of Singapore, the University of California at Berkeley, Cambridge University, the University of Copenhagen Oxford University, the University of Tokyo and Yale University.

Further Reading

Chen, H., & Xu, Y. (1999). Juguo zhumu xin zheda, renzhong daoyuan chuang yiliu [The new Zhejiang University has attracted attention from all over the country, and it is a heavy responsibility to make it a first-class university]. China’s Higher Education, 1999(1), 16–20.

Cheng, Chung-Ying, & Bunnin, N. (Eds.). (2002). Contemporary Chinese philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

Edmonds, R. (2002/2003). The growth of contemporary China studies and The China Quarterly. In Issues and Studies, 38(4) and 39(1), 320–326.

Franklin, U. (2001). Art, technology and knowledge transfer. In R. Hayhoe and J. Pan (Eds.), Knowledge across cultures: A contribution to dialogue among civilizations (pp. 243–248). Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.

Friedman, T. (2000). The Lexus and the olive tree. New York: Anchor Books.

Gillespie, S. (2001). South-south transfer: A study of Sino-African exchanges. New York and London: Routledge.

Hall, D. L., & Ames, R. (1999). The democracy of the dead: Dewey, Confucius and the hope for democracy in China. Chicago and Lasalle IL: Open Court.

Hayhoe, R. (1989). China’s universities and the Open Door. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Hayhoe, R. (1999). China’s universities 1895-1995: A century of cultural conflict. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong.

Hu, D. (2001). He er butong: Gaodeng jiaoyu mianxiang shijie de zhongyao yuanze [Harmonious co-existence within diversity: A cardinal principle of higher education facing the world]. China’s Higher Education, 22(22), 15–17.

Knight, J. (1997). Internationalisation of higher education: A conceptual framework. In J. Knight & H. D. Wit (Eds.), Internationalisation of Higher Education in Asia Pacific Countries (pp. 5–19). Amsterdam: The European Association of International Education.

Law, Wing-
Wah (Ed.). (1999). New rules of the game in the education in the People’s Republic of China: Educational laws and regulations. Chinese Education and Society: A Journal of Translations, May-June.

Source: Zha, Qiang. (2009). University Education. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2359–2362. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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