Higher education in China

Higher education in China is continuously growing, changing and developing. There are over 2,000 universities and colleges, with more than six million enrollments in total.[1] China has set up a degree system, including Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees that are also open to foreign students. The country offers non-degree programs as well.

According to the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China, the government authority on all matters pertaining to education and language, higher education in China has played a significant part in economic growth, scientific progress and social development in the country "by bringing up large scale of advanced talents and experts for the construction of socialist modernization."[2] In recent years, China has also become a major destination for international students.[3] As of 2013, China is the most popular country in Asia for international students and ranks third overall among the countries.[3]


The traditional Chinese education system is based on legalist and Confucian ideals. The teaching of Confucius has shaped the overall Chinese mindset for the past 2500 years. But, other outside forces have played a large role in the nation's educational development. The First Opium War of 1840, for example, opened China to the rest of the world. As a result, Chinese intellectuals discovered the numerous western advances in science and technology. This new information greatly impacted the higher education system and curriculum.

Soviet influence in the early 1950s brought all higher education under government leadership. Research was separated from teaching. The government also introduced a central plan for a nationally unified instruction system, i.e. texts, syllabi, etc. The impact of this shift can still be seen today. Chinese higher education continues its struggle with excessive departmentalisation, segmentation, and overspecialisation in particular.

From 1967 to 1976, China’s Cultural Revolution took another toll on higher education, which was devastated more than any other sector of the country. The enrollment of postsecondary students can be used as example to illustrate the impacts. The number dropped from 674,400 to 47,800. This has had a major impact on education in the 21st century. The decline in educational quality was profound.

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping made the decision of resuming the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gao Kao), having profound impact on Chinese higher education in history. From the 1980s on, Chinese higher education has undergone a series of reforms that have slowly brought improvement. The government found that schools lacked the flexibility and autonomy to provide education according to the needs of the society. Structural reform of higher education consists of five parts:

The reforms aim to provide higher education institutions more autonomy and the ability to better meet the needs of students. Instead of micromanagement, the state aims to provide general planning.

The Provisional Regulations Concerning the Management of Institutions of Higher Learning, promulgated by the State Council in 1986, led to a number of changes in administration and adjusted educational opportunity, direction and content. Reform allowed universities and colleges to:

Reforms picked up the pace in 2000, with the state aiming to complete the reform of 200 universities operating under China's ministries and start 15 university-based scientific technology parks.[4]

Present day

In 2002, there were slightly over 2000 higher education institutions in PRC. Close to 1400 were regular higher education institutions (HEIs). A little more than 600 were higher education institutions for adults. Combined enrollment in 2002 was 11,256,800. Of this close to 40 percent were new recruits. Total graduate student enrollment was 501,000.[2] The number of graduates from Chinese higher educational institutions increased from 1 million per year in 2000 to 7 million per year in 2010.[5]

In 2005, there were about 4,000 Chinese institutions. Student enrollment increased to 15 million, with rapid growth that is expected to peak in 2008. However, the higher education system does not meet the needs of 85 percent of the college-aged population.[6]

Since 1998, 10 universities have been targeted by the Chinese government to become “world-class” - including Peking and Tsinghua Universities. To achieve that goal, the government promised to increase the educational allocation in the national budget by 1 percent a year for each of the five years following 1998. When CPC General secretary Chinese president Jiang Zemin attended the hundredth anniversary ceremony at Peking University (Beida) in 1998 and the ninetieth anniversary ceremony at Tsinghua University in 2001, he emphasized this ambitious goal of advancing several of China's higher education institutions into the top tier of universities worldwide in the next several decades. In the meantime, China has received educational aid from UNESCO and many other international organizations and sources, including the World Bank, which recently loaned China $14.7 billion for educational development. Since 2007, China has become the sixth largest country in hosting international students. The top ten countries with students studying in China include: Korea, Japan, USA, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, India, Indonesia, France and Pakistan.[7][8][9] The total number of international students studying in China often range around two hundred thousands.

Only 30 percent of faculty hold postgraduate degrees. This is a consequence of the lack of an academic degree system in China until the 1980s. Recently, internationally trained scholars have entered the faculty with the goals of both improving quality and strengthening ties to other institutions around the world. The state recognizes the need for more home-grown professors.[6]

In Spring 2007 China planned to conduct a national evaluation of its universities. The results of this evaluation would be used to support the next major planned policy initiative. The last substantial national evaluation of universities was in 1994. That evaluation resulted in the 'massification' of higher education as well as a renewed emphasis on elite institutions and education through initiatives like Project 985 in the late 1990s and more recently the Thousand Talents Program which was launched in 2008.[10] Since 2010, in some of the elite institutions, there has been an attempt at introducing some aspects of an American-style liberal arts curriculum for selected students.[11]

According to the latest data (2015) of People's Republic of China Ministry of Education, total number of Chinese National Higher Institutions is 2845, including 2,553 National General Colleges and Universities and 292 Adult Higher Institutions.[12] On the other hand, the number of enrolled college students including undergraduate students, master and PhD students is 23.91 million in 2012.[13] In the last 5 years, the Chinese graduates continue to increase dramatically with almost 7.5 million new graduates entering into job market in 2015.[14] Investment in education accounts for about 4% of total GDP in China in 2015.[15] Chinese government is more concerned about education, particularly higher education, in the last decades. International students have enrolled in over 775 higher education institutions in China.[15] Until 2014, there were more than 377,000 foreign students from 203 countries or regions study in China.[16]

Although numbers of students have been increasing there are some serious concerns about the quality of education these students are receiving and the skills which they have at graduation. One study estimates that only 1.2 million of 15.7 million university graduates (or 7.6%) have skills that are valued by international markets for human capital.[17] In other words, the vast majority of students educated in Chinese universities do not have adequate skills to compete in anything but the most local Chinese industries.

Admission process

Unlike in the US where SAT scores, recommendation letters from teachers, extracurricular activities participation, high school record, etc. are considered during the application process for nearly all higher institutions, theoretically, a student's score in the China’s Annual College Entrance Examination is the only consideration used for admission into universities in China. Thus, the higher the score a student obtains in the China’s Annual College Entrance Examination (Gaokao), the higher the likelihood said student will be enrolled in a prestigious university.

Regional education development imbalance leads to the different treatment of students from different regions. Enrollment rules in China are based on the scores in National College Entrance Examination (Gaokao), but a given university's minimum score threshold varies depending on the province an applicant is from and the degree of competition in applicants from various provinces. The more you have more top universities in this region, the more chances the students in this region will be enrolled into a top university. The university admission quotes are not based on the population of this area but university’s own enrollment plan. In some populous provinces, the competition is extremely fierce, while, in some areas with more institutions, such as Beijing or Shanghai, access to a prestigious university is more attainable.

Types of colleges and universities

In China, according to ownership-based categories of HEIs, the higher education can be divided into two categories---State-owned or government-owned HEIs, including Regular HEIs, Independent Institutions, Higher Vocational Colleges, Adult HEIs, and non-government or private universities [18] Due to the long-time influence by Soviet Union and late development of private universities, it has deeply rooted in Chinese heart that government-owned is much better than private ones.[19] Regular HEIs is the cornerstone in China’s higher education, while private universities development could not be ignored.[20]

According to the latest data(2015) of People's Republic of China Ministry of Education, total number of Chinese National Higher Institutions is 2845, including 2,553 National General Colleges and Universities and 292 Adult Higher Institutions.[12] Government-owned HEIs are likely to receive more policy and finance support from official level.

Compared with state-owned universities, private universities’ development is in an awkward position. Different with private universities in Western world, China’s provide education is a complement to public universities to meet the needs for those who failed in their college entrance examination and who could not afford the tuition fees to study abroad. Due to the large population, Chinese public universities are impossible to satisfy everyone’s needs. Under this condition, private universities of China come into being. The advantages of their professional setting that more in line with market requirements could not make up for the lack of financial funds and students. Actually, these two factors are equal. The source of funds for them depends largely on students’ tuition fees [21]

Except of competition from public universities and other sino-foreign cooperative private institution, the most deadly weakness is that Chinese officials deny acknowledging their degree. In Private Education Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China, it clearly indicates that “Private university degree is that national recognition of the non national education series, belonging to private colleges awarded diplomas”.[22]

Though followed by “The educated in Private colleges enjoy the same level and rights in further education, employment, social welfare, and participation in advanced selection with the educated public schools” ,[22] it can hardly compensate the flaw that the degree belonging to only private colleges awarded diplomas, but no acknowledgement by officials.


China exhibits a great need for better regulation as well as more academic qualifications, teaching experience, and understanding of social changes and technology. To achieve success, the state realizes that the impacts of the Cultural Revolution on education must be reversed. To this end, top universities now function as centers of excellence that serve as a model for all other institutes. A helpful model involved "twinning" of poorer institutes with model institutes to provide equipment, curricula, and faculty development.

There is also an issue of funding and equity. Although academic praise reforms for moving the higher education sector from a unified, centralized and closed system to one that allows openness and diversification, they understand that decentralization and semi-privatization has led to further inequity in educational opportunity. Graduate unemployment rates are also a growing concern.

There is growing concern about the mindset of students produced by Chinese institutions, where cheating is widespread and tolerated. Many corporations feel the quality of rote memorization instilled in Chinese students serves as a detriment to creative thinking and the lack of real-world experience during the formative years negatively impacts students' ability to adapt to the global business environment easily. These issues will need to be addressed in the coming years if China aims to continue its drive for excellence.[23]

Unemployment rates are quite high among Chinese graduates. Because of expansion of universities in China last decades, more students had access to receive higher education. With continuous graduates’ entry into employment market, graduate unemployment is highlighted. China’s recent upsurge in graduate unemployment has specific causes relating to economic development, education policy-making, and reforms in the economy as well as in higher education.[24]

International students

With China’s rising national strength and popularity of Chinese in the world, China as a study destination attracts thousands of foreign students abroad and the number of foreign students continues to grow rapidly in recent years. According to 2014 data from Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, there are more than 377,054 foreign students studies in all the 31 provinces in China, with an increase of 5.77% over the same period last year.[25] In 2015, a record breaking 397,635 international students went to China, solidifying its position as the third most popular destination country for overseas students.[26]

The largest source of foreign students comes from Asia, accounting almost 60% of the total, followed by Europe 18%, Africa 11% respectively.[25] For individual country, the top three countries of origins are South Korea(62,923), United States(24203) and Thailand(21296).[25] Only 10% of foreign students receive Chinese Government Scholarship and the rest 90% are self-funded.[25]

On the other side, more Chinese wealthy families are more likely to send their kids abroad to receive higher education. Free academic atmosphere, high-quality teaching quality and new way to cultivate talents---all these advantages contribute to the flood of Chinese students arriving in United States, United Kingdom, Germany and other developed countries. Chinese students have been the largest foreign group in USA since 2010, with 157,588 arriving between 2010 and 2011.[25] The same situation happened in United Kingdom and Germany. Western education will likely remain the leading choice for Chinese students due to its cross-disciplinary fields and development of critical thinking.[27]

China has a strong demand for postsecondary education, to the extent that its university system currently cannot keep pace with demand. Consequently, universities in the United States, Europe and Australia play a significant role by partnering with Chinese universities, aggressively recruiting Chinese students for study in their host countries, increasing the number of students they send to study in China, and adding to their presence on the mainland, either through official foreign campuses or extensions. Australia, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries are already making strides into this market.

Partnering can be economically salubrious, either if the scholars choose to stay in the host country or return to the mainland. Most Chinese students who go abroad are among the best and brightest from their home country. Thus, if they choose to stay, they can benefit the economy of their host country when they gain employment and become members of their new communities. If they leave, they may maintain the contacts and connections they may have established, and also leave a positive impression on their hosts.[28]


Compared with commonwealth countries’ tuition, tuition of China’s higher education is relatively inexpensive. Nevertheless, the Chinese citizen’Per capita income is much lower than western countries’, so there are still some students from rural and mountainous areas facing funding problems. Chinese government has taken some measures to ensure the smooth enrollment of this group, like students loans, part-time jobs within campus, etc. It seldom has the news that some college students discontinue studies because of lacking of tuition or living cost.

Considering institution funding, it varies dramatically among different universities. In order to adapt to the fierce global competition in education, Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China initiated Project 211 in 90s aiming at strengthening about 100 institutions of higher education and key disciplinary areas as a national priority for the 21st century.[29] On May 4, 1998, President Jiang Zemin declared that “China must have a number of first-rate universities of international advanced lever”, so Project 985 was launched.[29] The total number of 985 project is 39 and all of them belong to 211 project at the same time.[29] The initial aim is to promote China’s educational competitiveness and establishment of a number of leading disciplines in the world.

Meanwhile, it is also the beginning to widen the gap and cause the imbalanced distribution of scientific research funds between 211 project universities and common public universities. Within the project, it is not only a glory but also hints numerous tangible benefits. The majority of public universities’ development lies to all levels of government funds. Entry in this project means you will gain more research funds. According to another data from Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, from 2009 to 2013, the total government research funding for 39 985-Project institutions is 13.9 billion RMB, with 73 211-Project Institutions approximately 5.1 billion RMB and rest of 670 common undergraduate colleges only 7.9 billion RMB. .[29]

The majority of Chinese universities are state-owned universities. The financial support from government level, in most circumstances, decides one university’s development. The imbalanced distribution of scientific research funds will deepen the gap among universities.


Peking University is the first formally established modern national university of China. It was founded as Imperial Capital University (Chinese: 京師大學堂) in 1898 in Beijing as a replacement of the ancient Guozijian (Chinese: 國子監), the national central institute of learning in China's traditional educational system in the past thousands of years.

Meanwhile, Wuhan University also claimed that its predecessor Ziqiang Institute (自強學堂) was the first modern higher education institution in China. On November 29, 1893, Zhang Zhidong submitted his memorial to Guangxu Emperor to request for approval to set up an institution designed for training students specializing in foreign languages, mathematics, science and business. After Ziqiang was founded in Wuchang, not only courses in foreign languages was taught, courses in science (chemical and mining courses starting from 1896) and business (business course starting from the very beginning) were also developed at the school.[30] Later, although the school officially changed its name to Foreign Languages Institute (方言學堂) in 1902, the school still offered courses in science and business.[30] In China, there had been some earlier schools specializing in foreign languages learning, such as Schools of Combined Learning in Beijing (京師同文館, founded in 1862[remark 1]), in Shanghai (上海同文館/上海廣方言館, founded in 1863), and in Guangzhou (廣州同文館), founded in 1864, but few provided courses in other fields, which hardly qualified as modern education institutions. Some argued that Wuhan University can only traced its history back to 1913, when the National Wuchang Higher Normal College (國立武昌高等師範學校) was established, but Wuhan University officially recognized its establishment as in 1893, relying on the abundance of historical documentation and the experts' endorsement.[31] In 1895, Sheng Xuanhuai (Chinese: 盛宣懷) submitted a memorial to Guangxu Emperor to request for approval to set up a modern higher education institution in Tianjin. After approval on October 2, 1895, Peiyang Western Study School (Chinese: 天津北洋西學學堂) was founded by him and American educator Charles Daniel Tenney (Chinese: 丁家立) and later developed to Peiyang University (Chinese: 北洋大學堂). In 1896, Sheng Xuanhuai (Chinese: 盛宣懷) delivered his new memorials to Guangxu Emperor to make suggestion that two official modern higher education institutions should be established in Beijing and Shanghai. In the same year, he founded Nanyang Public School (Chinese: 南洋公學) in Shanghai by an imperial edict issued by Guangxu Emperor. The institution initially included elementary school, secondary school, college, and a normal school. Later the institution changed its name to Jiao Tong University (also known as Chiao Tung University, Chinese: 交通大學). In the 1930s, the university was well known in the world as the "Eastern MIT"[32][33][34] due to its reputation of nurturing top engineers and scientists. In the 1950s, part of this university was moved to Xi'an, an ancient capital city in northwest China, and was established as Xi'an Jiaotong University; the part of the university remaining in Shanghai was renamed Shanghai Jiao Tong University. These two universities have developed independently since then. Tianjin University celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1995, followed by Jiao Tong University (both in Shanghai and Xi'an) in 1996. Other leading universities, such as Zhejiang University (1897), Peking University (1898), Nanjing University (1902), Fudan University (1905),Tongji University (1907) and Tsinghua University (1911) also recently celebrated their hundredth anniversaries, one after another.


  1. In 1902, School of Combined Learning in Beijing was merged with Imperial Capital University, now Peking University. However, Peking University never claims 1862 as its year founded. Neither does Peking University claim the year of establishing the Guozijian, which can date back more than one thousand years. Hunan University, with a similar history with Peking, often traced its history back to a school established in 976 A.D, thus giving this university a thousand years of history. See .

See also

Notes and references

  1. Fuzeng, Yu. China: Universities Colleges and Schools. International Education Media.
  2. 1 2 3 Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China. Higher Education in China. Beijing, PRC.
  3. 1 2 Sheehy, Kelsey (October 8, 2013). "Explore the World's Top Universities". U.S. News & World Report. Asia is among the fastest growing destinations for international students, and foreign enrollment at universities in Indonesia and South Korea have more than doubled since 2005, the agency reports. China continues to be the most popular destination in the region, though, ranking third among countries that host the most international students, IIE reports.
  4. China to Accelerate Higher Education Reform. People's Daily Online. 27 January 2000.
  5. Caron, Christina. “China and Canada: Economic Linkages, Migration, and the Canadian Labour Market.” Canada-China Human Capital Dialogue. Conference held at Ottawa, November 28, 2012.
  6. 1 2 Porter, Susan. Higher Education in China: The Next Super Power is Coming of Age. American Council on Education. 2005.
  7. "中国成第六大留学目的地 上年外国学生约20万名". Chinanews.com.cn. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  8. "中国成第六大留学目的地[]—中国教育网_新闻资讯_出国留学". Chinaedunet.com. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  9. "中国成第六大留学目的地 上年外国学生约20万名". Chinanews.com. Retrieved 2013-11-11.
  10. "The Thousand Talents Program: Lessons From China About Faculty Recruitment and Retention". www.conferenceboard.ca. Retrieved 2016-03-16.
  11. Karin Fischer, "Bucking cultural norms, Asia tries liberal arts" Chronicle of Higher Education February 5, 2012
  12. 1 2 "2015 National College List" People's Republic of China Ministry of Education May 21, 2015
  13. "2012 College Students statistics" People's Republic of China Ministry of Education May 01, 2013
  14. "2015 Chinese College Graduates Employment Report" People's Republic of China Ministry of Education July 20, 2015
  15. 1 2 "China Education" China Education Center Ltd
  16. "2014 Statistics of Foreign Students in China " People's Republic of China Ministry of Education March 08, 2015
  17. "Addressing China's looming talent shortage". McKinsey & Company. Retrieved 2016-03-16.
  18. Zhu, HongZhen and Lou Shiyan (2011). Development and Reform of Higher Education in China. Woodhead Publishing Limited. pp. 41–42. ISBN 9781843346395.
  19. Zhu, HongZhen and Lou Shiyan (2011). Development and Reform of Higher Education in China. Woodhead Publishing Limited. pp. 1–9. ISBN 9781843346395.
  20. 2015 National College List (Report). People's Republic of China Ministry of Education. 21 May 2015.
  21. Zhou, Guoping and Xie,Zuoyu (12 May 2006). "Bankruptcy Analysis of China's Private Universities". XiaMen University Press: 46–53.
  22. 1 2 Private Education Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China, Education Act No. IV of 28 Dec 2002 (in Chinese). Retrieved on 1 Sep 2003.
  23. Wach Out, India: China is way behind India in the business of outsourced services, but it has now started to catch up. The Economist. 4 May 2006.
  24. Bai, Liming (Mar 2006). "Graduate Unemployment: Dilemmas and Challenges in China's Move to Mass Higher Education". Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies: 128–144.
  25. 1 2 3 4 5 "2014 Statistics of Foreign Students in China " People's Republic of China Ministry of Education March 08, 2015
  26. "China's Rapid Rise As An Academic Destination" Student.com September 12, 2016
  27. "90% Of China’s Super-Rich Want To Send Children Abroad" International Business Times April 7, 2012
  28. Dynes, Robert. UC Foreign Graduate Students: Why A World-Class University Needs the World’s Best Minds. University of California Office of the President. 17 October 2005.
  29. 1 2 3 4 "Project 211 and 985" China Education Center Ltd
  30. 1 2 "自强学堂(简介)". Retrieved February 12, 2013.
  31. "武大回应120年校史有史实依据 校庆活动不会改". 武汉晚报. 2012-12-07.
  32. Archived July 22, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  33. Archived March 30, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  34. "践行钱学森教育思想 造就拔尖创新人才_教育视点_求是理论网". Qstheory.cn. Retrieved 2013-11-11.

Further reading

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