Rebecca A. CLOTHEY

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Nationalities institutes in China provide educational opportunities for minority students who might otherwise never gain access to higher education. They were established throughout China in the 1950s in response to a critical need for skilled minority professionals and higher education of Chinese Communist Party cadres. The Central University for Nationalities in Beijing plays an important role in the higher education of China’s minority nationalities.

The Central University for Nationalities in Beijing is one of thirteen tertiary (post-secondary) institutes in China specifically dedicated to the education of minority students; it was the first such institution to be established in China. Officially established as the Central Institute of Nationalities 中央民族学院 in June 1951, the name was changed to Central University for Nationalities in November 1993.

Nationalities institutes were established throughout China in response to a critical need for skilled minority professionals and cadres. China’s population encompasses fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups, of which the Han majority represents 91 percent. The remaining minority populations account for approximately 110 million people who speak up to a hundred different mother tongues (Clothey 2005). Most of these languages do not share a written format (i.e., characters formed from pictographs or symbols). In addition, many of the populations residing in minority areas are poor and lack equal access to a quality education. When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, there were only about two hundred institutions of higher education in China. Few of these were in minority areas, and minority populations were underrepresented in higher education throughout China.

The CCP considered promoting the training of minority cadres for work in local governments as an important effort to gain support among minority populations. Training minority cadres also had strategic benefits in China’s border areas, where many minority populations reside. Minority cadres would be familiar with the local languages and customs, and could thus serve as liaisons between the local people and the central government. Minority tertiary institutes thus had an important role in early government / minority population dealings.

In 1950 the Chinese government published the Preliminary Plan for the Founding of the Central Institute for Nationalities, which defined the goals, organization, curricula, and supervision for the school (Zhou 2009). The tasks of the Central Institute for Nationalities included training senior and mid-level cadres from all minority nationalities in order to promote economic, cultural, and political development in minority areas. By 1957 ten nationality institutions had been established throughout China; as of 2012 there are thirteen.

The English name of the Central Institute for Nationalities was changed in 2008 to Minzu University of China (MUC). The Chinese word mínzú 民族 roughly translates to “nationalities” and generally refers to China’s ethnic minority populations. Minzu University is unique in that it is the only tertiary minority institution that specifically aims to enroll students from all fifty-six ethnic groups. It does so with a variety of flexible admissions policies. In addition, unlike most comprehensive universities, Minzu University’s curriculum, campus institutions, and activities are designed to support the official promotion of minority cultures.

Impact of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)

As was the case with general education throughout China, early efforts to promote the higher education of minority nationalities were completely reversed during the Cultural Revolution 文化大革命 (1966–1976). In June 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the CCP ordered institutions of higher education to stop enrolling students; MUC subsequently suspended classes. For more than four years no universities enrolled any students, and senior intellectuals faced persecution. At MUC, the students in classes during the years 1966, 1967, and 1968 were assigned jobs at factories, farms, and army camps. Starting in 1969 the MUC campus was used only for political work and all new registrants were CCP members (Rong 2001). Between 1971 and 1976, colleges throughout China admitted students based on their class status, and ethnicity was not taken into consideration (Teng and Ma 2009). MUC graduated 612 of these “worker-peasant-soldier students” 工农兵学员 in 1975 (Rong 2001).

The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (gāokǎo 高考), which all students hoping to attend college in China must pass, resumed as normal in 1978. In addition to screening the best talent for universities in China, another purpose of the exam is to distribute limited educational resources fairly (Wang 2009). Because of ethnic and regional disparities in educational resources, however, this examination does not adequately address the inequality in higher education access. For this reason, China’s Ministry of Education stated in 1978 that some universities could use discretion when applying the exam point ranges required for college admission (Teng and Ma 2009). MUC is therefore able to employ a flexible admissions policy that makes it more accessible than other universities for many of China’s ethnic minority students.

Admissions Policies

To ensure the greatest student diversity, MUC allocates spaces to particular ethnic groups from year to year, and also according to region. Students from one region or ethnic group may be admitted with lower test scores than students from another, depending upon the total number of applicants from each area in any given year. In 2000 the lowest minimum required entrance score for MUC was 300 points for students testing in the humanities from the Tibet Autonomous Region (Clothey 2005). In contrast, students from Beijing required a minimum score of 465 to place into the humanities programs at MUC (Clothey 2005).

Required entrance exam scores may also vary according to major. In 2009 the highest admission score for students entering MUC from the Tibet Autonomous Region was 496 (483 for the humanities programs). The highest admission score for Beijing students entering the humanities programs at MUC was 610 (605 for sciences) (See “Research” 2009). Students might also be accepted to MUC if they score within 60 points of the minimum cut-off score, depending upon individual circumstances. In contrast, other universities may accept a differential of only 5 to 50 additional points (Wang 2009). The minimum entrance exam score needed for admission may also vary according to the regional economic development of a potential student’s home region, their language of instruction, and the language in which they took the entrance exam.

Language of the Entrance Exam

MUC’s flexible approach for admissions also affords some of China’s linguistic minorities the opportunity to take the exam in their native languages. For many linguistic minorities in China, the university entrance examination represents a particular challenge because the examination is typically offered in Mandarin Chinese. On the national level, however, certain minority students seeking admission to one of the nationality institutes may take the exam in their native languages. This is referred to as “minorities testing in minority languages” 民族考民文. Allowing linguistic minorities to take the exam in their native languages aims to provide a means by which to attain higher exam scores and, hence, more opportunities to enter college. Minority students may also take the test in Mandarin Chinese; this is referred to as “minorities testing in the Han language” 民族考汉文.

As of 2004 the National Higher Education Entrance Examination was available in six national minority languages, including Tibetan, Uygur, Mongolian, Korean, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz. These languages are native to ethnic minority groups living in China’s border areas, and they are also offered as majors at MUC. Students who take the entrance examination in their native language and attend MUC will likely be assigned to major in their own minority languages and literature, but students with these majors at MUC are not required to pay tuition, and many also receive a monthly supplementary stipend.

Other minority students at MUC are assigned to majors according to each department’s quota for the year in which they apply to the university. That is, different departments may have an allocated number of spaces for people of certain ethnic groups, but circumstances will vary. The higher one scores on the university placement examination, the more likely one is to be granted their first choice.

Not all universities reserve an allocated number of spaces for ethnic minority students, and minority students still represent a small proportion of the student body of China’s most prestigious universities. MUC’s comparatively flexible admissions policies mean that many students who might otherwise not be able to attend university (either for financial reasons or because of educational background) may still have an opportunity to attend Minzu University in Beijing.


The majors that are offered at each minority institution vary according to local needs, but  most of these institutes have departments for the study of ethnology as well as local minority languages, literature, and history. The curriculum offered at MUC is primarily oriented toward minority issues and CCP policy toward minorities. For example, MUC’s School of Marxism & Leninism (Institute for Chinese Ethnic Theories & Policies), which was founded in 2004, teaches the theory, ideology, and politics of China’s ethnic policies and the “solving of China’s ethnic problems” (MUC 2010a). Other subjects offered include pre-college preparatory courses (yùkē 预科) for minority students, cadre training, and coursework in minority languages, literature, theory, and ethnology. In addition to these specialties—none of which is offered at regular comprehensive universities in China—MUC also offers majors that are commonly offered in comprehensive universities, such as economics, law, philosophy, physics, and history.

Project 211

In 1997 MUC was selected as one of the Project 211 universities. The Chinese government initiated Project 211 in the mid-1990s with the aim of strengthening certain tertiary institutions and key disciplines. To this end, a hundred universities were initially selected to receive additional funds from the central government toward improving quality in the areas of education, scientific research, management, and efficiency. Being selected as a Project 211 school ranks MUC among the more prestigious universities in China. The university was granted RMB¥100 million (approximately US$12 million) from the central government in 2002, which it has used to construct new dormitories, a library, and several other buildings.

MUC also expanded its program offerings. In 2003 the university had eleven schools and seven independent departments. By 2010 there were nineteen schools and eight independent departments within the university. The schools include: Arts & Design; Continual Education; Dance; Economics; Education; Ethnology & Sociology; Foreign Languages; Information Engineering; International Education; Law; Life Science & Environmental Science; Literature & Journalist Communications; Management Studies; Marxism & Leninism (Institute of Chinese Ethnic Theories & Policies); Music; Science; Tibetology Research; Preparatory College; Postgraduate College. The departments include: History; Kazakh Language & Literature; Korean Language & Literature; Language & Literature of Chinese Ethnic Minorities; Minority Languages & Literatures; Mongolian; Philosophy & Religion; and Uygur Language & Literature. (MUC 2010b).

Since 2006, master’s degrees can be earned in sixty-one fields of study (including a Master’s of Public Administration), and doctorate degrees can be obtained in twenty-three specialties. This is in contrast to only twenty-four different master’s and nine doctoral degree programs offered in 2003.

MUC also offers preparatory programs for students who are deemed not adequately prepared academically for college after completing high school. Preparatory programs, which are offered at 140 different universities throughout China, are designed to lay a foundation for a four-year college education (Teng and Ma 2009). Two kinds of preparatory programs are offered at MUC, which admit more than three hundred students each year. One is a two-year program for students from Xinjiang, which includes advanced Mandarin Chinese, fundamental English, computer basics, and Deng Xiaoping Theory and Mao Zedong Thought. The other track of study is only one year and includes reinforcing academic skills, improving basic study skills, fundamental English, and several elective courses.

After completing the preparatory programs, students may apply to different universities in a variety of majors. Among the key universities that have accepted preparatory program students are Tsinghua, Nanjing, and Beijing Normal. Preparatory program students may also continue their tertiary education at Minzu University. Since the 1980s more than 90,000 minority students have participated in preparatory programs at various universities throughout China (Teng and Ma 2009).

Campus Environment

In addition to the curriculum, the campus of MUC and its surrounding area also provides other resources to support minority studies. The university promotes itself as providing a breadth of activities and venues in which students can learn more about their minority culture and history, while at the same time developing an understanding of CCP policies and national unity.

Approximately 1,500 of MUC’s full-time faculty are ethnic minorities, representing 70 percent of the total faculty population. Furthermore, a wide variety of research projects on minority languages and cultures stem from MUC. Some of these are funded by international agencies such as UNICEF, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), and the Ford Foundation.

In the fall of 2003 a new fifteen-story library was built on the campus utilizing Project 211 funds supplied by the central government. The campus library contains the largest collection of minority publications (in minority languages) in China. The library houses more than 1 million volumes in minority languages, as well as minority-region magazines, newspapers, videos, and tapes (Liang 2001), some of which are very rare. All MUC students may utilize the library, although some books, such as rare books or books published prior to 1949, may not be accessible to everyone. Some of the library’s books are published at the university’s research institute and publishing house, which prints books and journals about minorities in China, in a variety of ethnic minority languages. Many of these are also written by MUC’s faculty.

An ethnic minority museum within the campus, rebuilt in 2003, contains more than 30,000 cultural artifacts and rare items from each of the fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups (Liang 2001). These include relics, manufacturing tools, living utensils, old lacquer ware, jewelry, religious items, clothing, and ornaments.

Within the campus and its surrounding area are also an abundance of restaurants offering specialty cuisines from the various minority regions of China. Several student cafeterias offer halal (qīngzhēn 清真) food, catering to the dietary restrictions of Chinese Muslim minority groups. Restaurants on and around the campus also offer Korean, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uygur, and Dai cuisine.

Minzu University also sponsors ceremonies, festivals, and programs to celebrate the traditions and holidays of the minority groups that have larger representation on campus, such as Yi, Manchu, and Mongolian. These are often open to the public, and members of the featured minority groups might be allocated tickets to attend for free.

Outlook for the Twenty-First Century

Nationality institutions in China such as MUC are currently among the few places where minority education is explicitly promoted. Through flexible admissions policies, MUC continues to provide educational opportunities for minority students who might otherwise never gain access to higher education.

Nationality institutions such as MUC also provide employment to many minority faculty who might not find positions at institutions that do not offer such subjects as minority languages and literatures. Students, of course, benefit from a campus environment that supports minority cultural awareness. For these reasons, and also because it is one of China’s top-ranked universities, MUC has a very important role in the higher education of China’s minority nationalities.

It is difficult, however, to predict over the long term what role MUC and other nationality institutions will have in developing minority talent. Since the 1990s China has transitioned away from a planned economy in which guaranteed jobs are assigned to college graduates by the government according to a central plan. Now industries must use their own discretion to recruit and discharge employees according to their own needs. As China’s economy becomes increasingly global and market-oriented, university graduates must compete for jobs in a market where such subjects as minority languages and literature are increasingly less valued than majors with higher earning power, such as business or English language. In addition, some minority graduates may have difficulty finding jobs in a more competitive job market due to poor professional preparedness, limited Chinese language ability, or ethnic discrimination in the job market (Rong 2009). Despite these challenges, MUC graduates are among China’s educated elites and are therefore also among the most well-educated representatives of their ethnic groups.

Further Reading

Clothey, Rebecca. (2005). China’s policies for minority nationalities in higher education: Negotiating national values and ethnic identities. Comparative Education Review, 49(3), 389.

Deng Yushun. (Ed.). (2001). Zhongyang Minzu Daxue: 1951–2001 [The Central University for Nationalities: 1951–2001]. Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Daxue Chubanshe.

Lee, MaryJo Benson. (2001). Ethnicity, education, and empowerment: How minority students construct identities. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Liang Tingwang. (2001). Zhongyang Minzu Daxue de Teshu Diwei he Zuoyong [Central University for Nationalities’ special status and role]. Journal for the Central University for Nationalities, 3, 1–10.

Mackerras, Colin. (2003). China’s ethnic minorities and globalization. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Minzu University (MUC). (2010a). School of Marxism & Leninism (Institute of Chinese Ethnic Theories and Policies). Retrieved January 12, 2010, from

Minzu University (MUC). (2010b). Schools / Departments. Retrieved January 12, 2012, from

Mok, Ka Ho. (1997). Privatization or marketization: Educational development in post-Mao China. In Vandra Masemann and Anthony Welch (Eds.), Tradition, modernity and post-modernity in comparative education (pp. 547–567). Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education.

Postiglione, Gerard. (1999). China’s national minority education: Culture, schooling, and development. New York: Falmer Press.

Postiglione, Gerard. (Ed.). (2006). Education and social change in China: Inequality in a market economy. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Strategy Policy and Research in Education Limited. (2009).  Research on China’s National College Entrance Examination (the Gaokao). Sydney: Commonwealth of Australia.  Retrieved January 17, 2012, from

Rong, Ma. (2009). Minority education in Xinjiang. In M. L. Zhou and A. Maxwell Hill (Eds.), Affirmative action in China and the United States (pp. 179–199). New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Rong Shenxing. (Ed.). (2001). Zhongyang minzu daxue wu shi nian [The Central University for Nationalities: 50 years]. Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Daxue Chubanshe.

Teng Xing, & Ma Xiaoyi. (2009). Preferential policies for ethnic minorities and educational equality in higher education in China. In M. L. Zhou & A. Maxwell Hill (Eds.), Affirmative action in China and the United States (pp. 83–98). New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Wang Tiezhi. (2009). Preferential policies for minority college admission in China. In M. L. Zhou & A. Maxwell Hill (Eds.), Affirmative action in China and the United States (pp. 71–82). New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Zhao Zhenzhou. (2010). China’s Mongols at university: Contesting cultural recognition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Zhou Minglang. (2009). China’s positive and preferential policies. In M. L. Zhou & A. Maxwell Hill (Eds.), Affirmative action in China and the United States (pp. 47–70). New York: Palgrave McMillan.

Source:Clothey, Rebecca A. (2012). Central University for Nationalities. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.