Ruth HAYHOE and ZHA Qiang

China has the largest higher-education system in the world, and its growth rate has outstripped the Chinese economy in recent years.

As China’s economy has liberalized and grown, enrollments in China’s institutes of higher education have been shooting up too. In 1990, only 3.4 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds benefited from any form of higher education; this figure reached 7.2 percent in 1995 and 12.5 percent in 2000. In 2002 the internationally acknowledged threshold of mass higher education, 15 percent of the age cohort , was reached, with China’s ministry of education reporting total enrollments of 16 million in all forms of higher education . This figure can be compared to the total enrollments of 16.6 million in degree-granting institutions in the United States in 2002. Of course the population of China is more than five times larger than that of the United States, but this nevertheless means that China probably has the largest higher-education system in the world.

This rise in China’s higher-education system is qualitatively different from the rise it experienced back 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 . Today China’s leaders recognize that universities may be better able to contribute to economic and social development when given a considerable degree of freedom to shape their own identities and choices. Thus they have taken an entirely different approach to planning expansion than in the past. A series of national policy documents have increased university autonomy step by step, culminating in a national higher-education law, passed in 1998, which sets the parameters within which universities can plan their own future development.

The 21/1 Project

In 1993 the government announced a major national initiative to give significant financial support to one hundred of China’s universities, with the goal of having those institutions achieve world-class status by the twenty-first century. This initiative was nicknamed the 21/1 project. Rather than deciding which institutions to target, as had been done in the past, the state invited universities to put forward competitive proposals for acceptance into this elite group. This opportunity to gain recognition and significant financial benefits unleashed a frenzy of activity around the country, as universities developed strategic plans to demonstrate the unique contribution they could make to the nation based on their particular strengths in areas of critical importance. In many cases, they looked back to the historical links they had with diverse foreign countries and to the partnerships they had established after the opening up of 1978, when the open door policy was adopted at the third plenary session of the Eleventh National Congress of Chinese Communist Party .

In addition to vying for governmental funding, Chinese universities launched their own efforts to raise funds within China and internationally, utilizing alumni networks around the world, consultancy services, and in some cases multinational companies that market some of the universities’ high-tech achievements. In the case of Peking University, its multinational company (Peking University Founder Group Corporation, or Fang Zheng Jituan) has brought significant revenue to the university. It had over RMB¥ 10 billion (more than US $1.2 billion, in current dollars) in revenue in 2000 and a profit of RMB ¥445.54 million (approximately US$55.6 million).


At a national forum on structural reform of the higher education system, held in 1994 in Shanghai and attended by officials of the State Education Commission and presidents of selected universities that had pioneered some reform initiatives, several strategies were suggested as means of improving the quality of Chinese higher education and making better use of resources. These included joint support for higher education by provincial and national authorities, the transfer of highly specialized institutions from national ministries to local control, and mergers among institutions. A large number of mergers took place subsequently, in almost all cases resulting in universities of increased scope, whose knowledge areas included not only basic arts and sciences but also most fields of professional specialization. These mergers have effectively reversed the specialization that grew up under Soviet influence in the 1950s, when there were more than ten distinctive types of university (for example, comprehensive universities that focused on the arts and sciences, universities of science and engineering, universities for teacher training , and a range of specialized institutions in engineering, agriculture, medicine, finance, law, fine arts, and physical culture).

To understand more clearly the impact that mergers have had on Chinese higher education, consider the case of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou Province. It was one of China’s top comprehensive universities in the 1930s and 1940s, but in 1952 it was dismembered, with one portion becoming a university of engineering sciences. In 1997 that university decided to merge with a local medical university, an agricultural university, and a university of political science and law, all of which had been split off from it in 1952. The fifth party to this merger, Hangzhou University, was a provincial comprehensive university with very high standards in fields such as history, literature, and education. It too had been founded in 1952, from the departments of arts and education of the former Zhejiang University and a well-known Christian university whose roots went back to the early nineteenth century. Zhejiang University is now ranked fifth among China’s top institutions, after Nanjing University (fourth), Fudan University (third), Tsinghua University (second), and Peking University (first). These are five of an that were selected in May 1998 for a even higher level of funding than the remaining ninety-odd universities in the 21/1 project. The celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Peking University, China’s top institution, in May 1998 led to what is called the 98/5 Project, which supports this special group at the top. Peking and Tsinghua universities both received RMB¥1.8 billion (US$225 million) recently, while Fudan, Zhejiang, and Nanjing Universities received RMB¥1.2 billion (US$150 million) each . This is intended to support high-level research and to improve the remuneration and living conditions of faculty and students.

One result of the recent mergers has been a remarkable diversification of the Chinese higher-education system. Diversification has proceeded along both horizontal and vertical axes. Horizontally speaking, there are many more comprehensive institutions of varied curricular emphases, and the average size of institutions has increased enormously, as shown in Ta b le 1. The table reveals that from 1990 to 2000, universities having an enrollment of 3,000 students or more increased from 170 (15.8% of the total) to 603 (57.9%). See Table 1.

The hundred institutions in the top echelon of the system that benefit from the extra resources provided under the 21/1 project enjoy significant advantages and carry out most of the graduate education and research across the whole higher-education system.

In terms of vertical diversification, there are now effectively four tiers of higher institution. The top tier, which consists of the hundred institutions in the 2 1 /1 project, is responsible for the education of the most talented students from all parts of the nation and has a strong commitment to research. The second tier, consisting mainly of public universities at the provincial level, serves the diverse needs of different regions, fields, and types of students. The third tier is made up of publicly funded institutions that offer largely subdegree programs and are often administered at the municipal level. These were originally called vocational universities, but the term “community college” is also used in some cases. The fourth tier consists of a burgeoning number of fully private institutions of higher education.

Private Institutions

In the 1980s China began to permit the establishment of private institutions to respond to the huge social demand for higher-education places, and these institutions have burgeoned. Private institutions of higher education have differentiated themselves from state-funded institutions by specializing in vocational education. In addition to state-stipulated areas of study, the curriculum of these private institutions is dominated by foreign languages, business studies, information technology, and other practical subjects, which are in demand in the employment market. Only a small proportion of the private institutions are formally recognized by the government —167 out of approximately 1,300. Just nine of them have been granted permission by the state to confer degrees . Not surprisingly, a high concentration of students in these institutions are those who have failed to gain access to state-sponsored higher education. China’s private higher-education institutions are thus clustered at the bottom of the national system .

One result of the free-market approach to higher education has thus been an increasingly sharp hierarchy of institutions, with a greater gap between those at the top, and those in lower tiers—a phenomenon not unique to China. (It has also happened in other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, as well as in Canada and Australia.) A positive aspect of this in the Chinese context is the fact that a significant number of top universities have been given the opportunity and resources to become proactive in assessing their own strengths and weaknesses and are now equipped to position themselves in the global community.

Academic Autonomy

Recent reforms have made possible a higher degree of autonomy than has been possible since the revolution of 1949. University autonomy is usually seen 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 those 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.

World-Class Education

In a symposium on the philosophical and practical demands of nurturing a world-class university, held at Tsinghua University in 2003, a dozen participating presidents agreed on four essential factors. First, a world-class university must have a unique ethos and a clear rationale. This ethos must penetrate every aspect of its operation and life and must generate a unique culture on the campus. Second, a world-class university requires a style of administration that makes sure the rationale is implemented in all aspects of the university’s operation. Third, the university must make quality and benchmarking highest-priority issues. Last but not least, a world-class university should contributes to human civilization and well-being, as well as to national social and economic development.

The world will be watching to see how Chinese universities proceed.

Further Reading

Hayhoe, Ruth. (2006). Portraits of influential Chinese educators. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre and Springer.

Parkins, Geoffrey K. (2001). Chinese higher education: An A-Z of people, facts and developments. Feltham, UK: GPEducational.

Parkins, Geoffrey K. (2002). Parkins biographical dictionary of Chinese philosophy, politics, and education: 1523 BC to the present. Feltham, UK: Geoffrey K. Parkins.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2000). Current Issues in Chinese Higher Education. Paris: OECD.

Yang, Rui. (2002). Third delight. The internationalization of higher education in China. New York & London: Routledge.

Source: Hayhoe, Ruth, & Zha Qiang. (2006). World Class: China Higher Education Rising. Guanxi: The China Letter, 2, 1.