Issue: 2010: Vol. 9, No. 1

China’s Higher Education Reform

Article Author(s)

Guo-hua Wang

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Guo-hua Wang is the East Asian Studies Librarian at the Woodruff Libraries at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. 
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China's Higher Education ReformEducation reform in China has reached a new and crucial stage. The driving force is the need to produce an increasingly knowledgeable workforce equipped to handle the challenges of an economy that is not only growing extremely rapidly, but also becoming increasingly diversified and sophisticated.

The latest reforms are outlined in a comprehensive plan formally called “State Guidelines for Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan between 2010 and 2020,” otherwise known as the Development Plan.1 A second round of national discussion of the Development Plan has just been completed, and more than 30,000 suggestions were collected, reflecting national involvement in such an important issue. This plan is enormous and comprehensive, and is based on studies of various educational models.

The plan has backing from the highest levels. For example, in September of 2009 Premier Wen Jiabao visited five classes in a middle school in Beijing. He had lunch with students, and held a discussion session with teachers. On October 31, 2009, the government named Yuan Guiren as the new minister of education to lead the reform. The Development Plan’s scale, depth and detailed specifics clearly demonstrate the government and Party’s determination and ambition.

Two aspects for higher education reform are key: a relaxation of central control, and opening up of the college admission process. The Development Plan specifically calls for the government to release central control, give universities autonomy, and allow presidents and faculty to run their schools. The government’s function is to be limited to providing services and funding, and to making general educational policies. Universities will be governed by national higher education laws combined with regulations set up by institutions themselves. Another striking aspect of the reform plan is modification of the college admission process. The Development Plan states that it will change from the “one-exam-decides-all” method to a thorough evaluation of a student as a whole person using multiple tests and factors.

The plan is divided into four sections. Each section covers several chapters and each chapter includes numerous issues. Section One describes the plan’s overall strategy. Section Two lays out missions to accomplish and goals to achieve. Section Three outlines the reform of the educational infrastructure. Section Four provides measurements to ensure implementation. Six chapters are devoted to specific measures, which include the following: strengthening the quality of teaching faculty; increasing the government funding of education to 4% of GDP by 2012; completing education laws and regulations; and ensuring every step of the reform meets the laws and regulations. In order to accomplish these missions and goals, the Development Plan encourages educational institutions to design their own reform programs and policies.

The defined missions of the Development Plan for higher education are to greatly improve the overall quality of education; to advance science, technologies and culture; to accelerate China’s modernization process; and to make China a great nation with strong higher education. The goals of the reform are to advance teaching and scientific research; promote collaboration between universities and research institutions so as to speed discovery and innovation; enhance the ability to serve society by providing knowledge consultation and by transferring technologies and research results into products; nurture outstanding talent; and to cultivate a group of internationally recognized Chinese universities and a number of top- ranked Chinese universities in the world by the end of 2020. In short, the goal is to make China’s higher education internationally competitive.2

Establishment of Chinese Universities

To understand just how significant the current reforms are designed to be, a brief review of Chinese educational history is in order. In fact, the formal establishment of a higher education system in China is relatively recent. It is widely accepted that the first modern Chinese university was established in 1895, right after the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), which shifted the dominant influence in Asia from China to Japan. The national shame of this defeat awakened the empire of the Qing Dynasty, which accepted a proposal of Mr. Sheng Xuanhuai, a higher official of the dynasty and an industrialist, to empower the government by building up modern universities to educate and nurture talent with modern technologies in addition to classics. Beiyang University (now Tianjin University) was established in the city of the same name in 1895, followed by Qiushi Academy (currently Zhejiang University) in 1897, and Jingshi University (now Beijing University) in 1898. By the time the People’s Republic of China was founded, there were 227 higher institutions in China.3

The government that took over in 1949 reorganized higher education according to the model of the Soviet Union. Private universities, including those established by missionaries, were folded into the state. Soviet higher education emphasized specialization rather than comprehensiveness, and reflected the new political ideology and desire for economic development. As a result, some specialized subject colleges were established or separated out from some comprehensive universities. This higher education system served the purpose of the government at the time, and trained the first generation of highly needed intellectuals to build the new economy.

As Maoist-inspired political changes swept the country, Chinese higher education went through ups and downs. From 1958 to 1963, it experienced the Great Leap Forward. The number of Chinese universities and colleges was greatly increased from 229 in 1957, to 841 in 1958, to 1,289 in 1960. The “mistake” was corrected in the following years. In 1963, the number of universities was reduced to 407. 4 The Cultural Revolution started in 1966, pitting student Red Guards against teachers, and paralyzing formal education. A generation of students in the subsequent years essentially lost the opportunity to receive higher education. In 1970, the government allowed certain universities to re-open. However, the admission of college students was mainly decided by recommendations from peasants, workers and soldiers”and primarily based on the applicants’ political behavior. In 1977, Deng Xiaoping regained political power and eventually became the paramount leader of the country. One of his first decisions was to resume the national examination system for college admissions. Three national examinations were held from 1977 to 1979. About 18 million high school graduates from 1966 to 1977, who were willing and able to take the exams, participated in these historical educational events, and about 880,000 of them were fortunate to become college students.2 The college students from these three years have played important roles in advancing social and economic development in China as envisioned by Mr. Deng.

Prelude to the Current Higher Education Reform

With the formalization of a regular national college entrance examination system in the 1980s, Chinese higher education was in the process of recovering and adjusting from previous social upheavals. In 1993, as market reforms deepened, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council jointly issued a Program for Education Reform that allowed the establishment of private universities. The Program proclaimed that “the State encourages all sectors of society, including enterprises, institutions, public organizations or groups as well as individual citizens, to run higher education institutions in accordance with law and to participate in and support the reform and development of higher education.”6 Under this policy, some new colleges were founded by non-government entities, which symbolized a major change in the Chinese higher education structure, which used to be completely controlled by the central government. Such a move led to a significantly expanded scale of higher education. College enrollment experienced an unprecedented growth. According to 2007 Ministry of Education statistics, “in 1990, less than 4% of the 18-22 age group was enrolled as students in higher education institutions compared to 22% in 2005.” 7

As the number of universities grew, the demand for education quality also increased. For the first time in Chinese education history, the nation implemented university rankings using a set of criteria and standards to assess quality. A major event in the effort to improve the quality of higher education by the Chinese government was Project 211, launched in 1995. One hundred universities were selected to receive special funding to improve their overall performance. Subsequently, in 1998, the Ministry of Education launched another major initiative named Project 985. The first phase of Project 985 aimed to propel 10 Chinese universities to rankings among the best in the world in the 21st century. This program was subsequently expanded, and additional universities were selected. These two government-funded projects and the university ranking system have made a significant impact on the quality of China’s rapidly proliferating institutions of higher education.

In 2001, China was officially admitted to the World Trade Organization, which provided a great arena for exchanges with many other countries leading to opportunities to integrate Chinese education with the world. For example, the Ministry of Education has dispatched many presidents and party secretaries of top-ranked universities to visit and study in developed countries such as the United States and Great Britain. To promote multidisciplinary, academic collaborations, in early 2000 many old Soviet-style subject colleges were combined into comprehensive universities along the lines of large American universities.

Another important change in China’s higher education was the 1999 Higher Education Law. It stipulated that “universities are independent legal entities under democratic management.” 8However, as Lin Jianhua, vice president of Beijing University, pointed out: “Current law gives considerable autonomy to Chinese universities, but their rights have been vaguely defined.”2 Together, these developments during the past 20 years have set the stage for the current movement to reform the Chinese education system.

Future Prospects

In order to further reform Chinese education and stimulate economic development in the next decade, Premier Wen Jiabao chaired an Executive Committee that was formed to draft an education development plan in 2008. That committee produced the current reform plan. It is a grand plan that reflects a balance of interests and influences of various groups. By its very nature, education reform inevitably affects wide areas of society. Xu Zhihong, Deputy Chairman of the National People’s Congress, pointed out that “as the reform goes deeper and deeper, we will find a lot of fundamental difficulties.”10 Premier Wen echoed that sentiment when he said “We are now facing a lot of dilemmas.” 2 One concern is that autonomy for institutions of higher education “will go hand in hand with losing crucial connections ” and influence ” with powerful government departments.”12 While the plan encourages nurturing students’ creativity and independent thinking to foster scientific innovation, it certainly collides with cultural values that cherish obedience as a virtue. Such a cultural collision can only be resolved with time and collective efforts.

Ethical issues go hand in hand with education reform. A big concern among ordinary people arises from the reform of the GaoKao, or national college entrance examination. With GaoKao no longer the only criterion for admission, various other factors such as teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities will enter the picture. Because of these changes, people are worried that new kinds of bribery and corruption will emerge. It is essential that relevant laws be established and enforced. Ethical education should be part of the reform plan. Ultimately, the success of higher education reform will be inextricably intertwined not just with the political and culture development of the society, but also with its ethical evolution.

  1. The plan, “State Guidelines for Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan,” (国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要),
  2. Ibid
  3. Hayhoe, Ruth, China’s Universities 1895-1995, a Century of Cultural Conflict. New York: Garland Publishing, p.75 (1996).
  4. Kang, Ouyang, “Higher Education Reform in China,” Policy Futures in Education. 2(1): 141-149 (2004).
  5. Ibid
  6. Yang, Zhong, “Globalization and Higher Education Reform in China”
  7. Brandenburg, Uwe and Zhu, Jiani, Higher Education in China in the Light of Massification and Demographic Change: Lessons to be Learned for Germany. Gutersloh: CHE, p. 21 (2007).
  8. Feng, Jianhua, “Calls for University Reform,” Beijing Review April 9, 2009.
  9. Ibid
  10. Xu Zhihong “Talks about Higher Education Issues”
  11. Ibid
  12. Cyranoski, David, “China Debates University Reform,” Nature, 464 (2010)