China’s Revolution in Higher Education

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 5

While China’s remarkable economic achievements attract international attention, a less advertised revolution is quietly taking place in China’s higher education system. The long-term implications of this may be much more important for China’s future— and the world’s. A small part of it I witnessed myself. Last May I visited Xiamen University on China’s southern coast, overlooking Jinmen (Quemoy) and Taiwan. Established in 1921, the university’s main campus still displays early 20th century Western influences. Yet its new campus, recently built from scratch within nine months on a desolate island, definitely belongs to the 21st century. Accommodating thousands of students from all over China, the new campus contains state-of-the-art buildings, classes, labs, dormitories, offices, halls and an outstanding library with advanced equipment and technologies. The students who accompanied us were conversant in English and open-minded. Of course, it was impossible to judge quality on the basis of a few hours’ visit, but this visit was a signpost pointing to the course of China’s higher education revolution.

To a great extent, this revolution implies a reincarnation of the Western model of the comprehensive university, abandoned in 1949 when the communists seized China. For the next 30 years, China’s higher education duplicated the Soviet system, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Furthermore, as a result of the political and ideological upheavals, especially the break with the Soviet Union and the Cultural Revolution, Chinese universities decayed and even closed down for about ten years—from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. With the beginning of reforms and modernization in the late 1970s, institutions of higher education were re-opened and revived, but remained mired in past practices.

Thus, a gap gradually emerged between China’s growing free-market economy and opening to the outside and the more conservative and still-secluded higher education system. The system suffered from a number of problems that included central rigid planning and control; departmentalization and barriers between teaching, research and production; narrow range of studies; small universities, duplication and overlap; too much emphasis on science and engineering; lack of academic freedom; waste and low efficiency; free tuition; limited spending and investment; and low admittance rates. To be sure, China’s post-Mao reforms indirectly affected the higher education system, but reforms in higher education did not begin in earnest until the late 1990s.

In 1998, CCP General Secretary and PRC President Jiang Zemin called for the establishment of 100 first-class universities and 30 world-class research universities by 2020. Right now only four Chinese universities are recognized as meeting top international standards: Beijing and Qinghua (in Beijing) and Fudan and Jiaotong (in Shanghai) (Taipei Times, September 7, 2005). Entitled the 98-5 Project, the new plan has already achieved remarkable results. To begin with, the number of higher educational institutions has almost tripled, from 598 in 1978 to 1,731 in 2004. From 1978 to 1999 the average annual increase was 20; from 2000 to 2004 it was 172. In fact, the increase is even more dramatic, as over the last few years a number of smaller universities merged into larger academic institutions (all data herein, unless otherwise noted, is from China Statistical Yearbook 2005).

The overall number of full-time higher education faculty more than quadrupled, from 206,000 in 1978 to 858,000 in 2004. Again, the main growth was from 2000 to 2004: an average of 98,750 were added each year (compared to an average of 11,680 from 1978 to 1999). Also, by 2004, the overall number of students in China had reached over 21 million. The share of undergraduate students was 62.5 percent, while postgraduate students accounted for less than four percent, still quite small. Of the postgraduate students, about 20 percent were studying for a Ph.D., with the remainder as master’s degree students.

Another indication of this revolution is that the number of new students in the higher education system has increased over ten-fold, from about 400,000 in 1978 to nearly 4.5 million in 2004. While from 1978 to 1999 the average annual intake was 82,000, from 2000 to 2004 it was 566,750. The total number of undergraduate students has increased more then 15 times, from 856,000 in 1978 to 13.3 million in 2004. While from 1978 to 1999 the average annual increase was 213,863, from 2000 to 2004 it was nearly two million. The number of those who successfully completed their undergraduate study has also increased by nearly 15 times, from 165,000 in 1978 to 2,391,000 in 2004. While from 1978 to 1999, the average annual increase in graduates was 35,682, from 2000 to 2004 it was 238,750.

The number of new postgraduate students has dramatically increased over 30 times, from 10,708 in 1978 to 326,286 in 2004. While from 1978 to 1999 the average annual intake was over 5,000, from 2000 to 2004 it was nearly 50,000. In fact, the total number of postgraduate students in China’s higher education institutions has multiplied by an amazing 75 times, from 10,934 in 1978 to 819,896 in 2004. From 1978 to 1999 the average annual increase was 13,196; from 2000 to 2004 it was 129,664. These are perhaps the most significant figures that reflect the revolution in China’s higher education. Equally, the number of those who successfully completed their postgraduate study has increased from nine in 1978 to 150,777. From 1978 to 1999 the average annual increase in postgraduates was 2,671; from 2000 to 2004 it was 23,000.

In 2004, the majority of China’s postgraduate students have studied either engineering (38.8 percent) or science (12.5 percent); nearly 60 percent of the doctoral students and nearly 50 percent of the master’s candidates study one of these subjects. In 2004, about 56,000 engineering students successfully completed their postgraduate study. About 48,000 received their master’s and about 8,000 received their Ph.D.s. The percentage for undergraduate students is somewhat lower, but still impressive. Out of a total of 13.3 million students, nearly 4.4 million, one-third, study engineering. Nearly 2.3 million undergraduates (17 percent) study management—more than three times the number of economics students. An additional 1.16 million study science and around one million study medicine. In 2004, more than one million Chinese students successfully completed their undergraduate study in engineering (over 812,000) and science (over 207,000).

Evidently, China is still considerably weaker in humanities and especially in social sciences and law. As a matter of fact, the China Statistical Yearbook does not provide any data on sociology, anthropology, political science, international relations, demography, statistics or religion. History attracts 0.5 percent of all students and Philosophy 0.1 percent. Aware of this handicap, Beijing tries to promote the idea of the comprehensive university notwithstanding its sensitivity to humanities and social sciences. Yet this imbalance is also, and perhaps mainly, an outcome of the students’ preference for more practical—and profitable—professions.

Another interesting change has taken place in the number of Chinese students studying abroad. Until the beginning of reforms in the late 1970s, Chinese students had mainly studied in Soviet and East European universities. With the launch of reforms in 1978, Beijing allowed and even encouraged students to travel wherever they wanted. As early as 1978, 860 students were already studying abroad, reaching a peak of 125,179 in 2002. Then the number began to decline reaching 114,682 in 2004. Although higher education in China has become more expensive over time, it is still considerably less expensive than studying abroad. More important, this home-study trend must also reflect the students’ realization that some Chinese universities are of similar quality to Western universities. Still, Chinese students have continued to go abroad in the 2000s. The annual average for 2000-2004 was 18,923, compared to 2,631 for 1978-1999.

While the number of Chinese students abroad is slowly decreasing, more and more foreign students come to study in Chinese universities. In 2004, the number reached approximately 86,000, mostly from Asia, with 60 percent from South Korea and Japan. China is interested in attracting foreign students and plans to accommodate 120,000 in 2007 (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 61:9, October 22, 2004, p. A52). Once again, foreign students come to China not only because higher education is less expensive but also because its quality is improving. Although Taiwan still slights mainland China’s academic institutions and degrees, the fact that they become attractive to students is causing concern in Taiwan whose universities face a growing shortage of students, or another wave of brain-drain (Taipei Times, September 7, 2005).

China’s revolution in higher education reflects large-scale investment. In 2004, most higher education funds came directly from the central government (nearly 47 percent) and from tuition fees (nearly 30 percent). The rest came from other organizations that included donations and fund-raising—the share of which in the higher education budget has been growing steadily, reflecting China’s remarkable economic growth and the contribution of companies, corporations and businessmen. There has also been an exceptional increase in governmental allocation for science and research that jumped over 22 times, from the equivalent of US$660 million in 1978 to US$14.6 billion dollars in 2004. Again, this was especially evident from 2000 to 2004 when the average annual increase reached 1.85 billion dollars, compared to about 300 million dollars from 1978 to 1999.

This is just the beginning of China’s higher education revolution, which is a long-term plan. With its huge population, China’s plan to increase the entrance rate of the relevant age-group (19-21) from 13.3 percent in 2001 to 23 percent in 2010, to 40 percent in 2020 and to 55 percent in 2050—over a four-fold increase. Correspondingly, they plan to almost triple the number of undergraduate students between 2001 and 2050 and to quadruple the number of graduates by 2020. One planned outcome is that the share of those with higher education in the workforce is due to increase almost 10 times from 4.66 percent in 2001 to 44 percent in 2050 (Chinese Education and Society, 38:4, July-August 2005, p. 14).

Impressive as they are, these quantitative changes tell very little about the quality of China’s higher education. Compared to other countries, China’s higher educational system has one major disadvantage and two major advantages. Its main disadvantage reflects the time-honored legacy of conformity, discouraging innovation and lack of academic freedom. As much as Beijing would invest in higher education, if it does not manage to overcome these obstacles and provide a climate for fearless academic and scientific discussion, this revolution will be short-lived. At the same time, China has two formidable advantages: one is its huge population and the other is its mobilization capacity that is not bound by democratic values. Given that the ratio of talented people in the Chinese society is about the same as in other countries (and some would say it is higher), the Chinese government can feed its higher education system with millions of talented and even exceptional students for years to come.

Universities throughout the world have begun to appreciate the revolution in China’s higher education and to increase their academic cooperation with China, investing in China’s private universities—a new phenomenon—and forming partnerships with established Chinese universities.