China’s higher education renaissance

China’s rise has begun to pose multiple challenges to the global order and India in particular. As a disruptor to the extant order, there is a need for a strong global pushback against China’s aggression which is now beginning to emerge. But in some areas, there is a need to recognise the achievements of the Chinese model. Higher education is one such area where China is emerging as a leader in its own right. Between 2016 and 2018 China published more than 900,000 research papers. The figure puts them on top of Natural Science Publications, surpassing the United States who on a comparative produced around 600,000 papers at the same time.

China spends more than $650 billion a year on education, and this investment has started to manifest in substantial increase of quality in education around the country. The rise can also be gauged by assessing the World University Rankings. Where in 2010 there were just two Chinese universities ranked in the top 100, today, there are 12 Chinese universities recognised in the top 100, with Tsinghua University ranking as high as 15th on the list. According to the Times Higher University rankings, seven of the top 10 universities in emerging economies are also Chinese.

Currently, 8 million students graduate from China’s Higher Education Institutions annually. That is more than the number of graduates from India and the United States combined. This number is expected to grow three-fold by the start of the next decade. China has a two-pronged approach of focusing on the increase in the number of institutions but also regulating and increasing its quality. These universities regularly feature in the top 30 of the university rankings today.

At the turn of the century, the number of students leaving China for better educational opportunities was rising. Backed by higher mobility and a higher purchasing power parity these opportunities became more accessible than ever. This contributed to a loss of the number of student enrollments in the mainland. However, with the tightening of regulations on immigrants and Chinese nationals, there has been a slowdown in this process. The number of Chinese students who return to the mainland after the completion of their education has increased from 40 to around 80% between 2009 and 2018. Better employment opportunities accruing out of aggressive economic policies can be credited for the same.

Higher investment in institutions of higher education and research and development opportunities also incentivized this return to a degree and incentivized these individuals to pursue their academic research and its applications from China itself. Moreover, an International Education is considered expensive and though it had its importance initially, with a rise in investment in China’s universities, individuals find it tough to get employed because they have to compete in the ever-rising competition of a job market flooded with others from Chinese universities considered at par with their foreign counterparts.

These factors have led to a decrease in the number of individuals who are opting for education and subsequent jobs outside. Moreover, it creates an ever-increasing incentive for the Chinese administration to keep investing in the educational sector.

Higher Education Reforms in China and Current Trends

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the country established a highly centralized system of education run by the one-party state. Educational institutions were largely negatively impacted and suffered during the Chinese Revolution. The education system underwent major changes due to free-market reforms under Deng Xiaoping. While education was seen as a way to spread the party’s ideology and values further, it was deemed as a source of both indoctrination and as a carrier of the country’s developmental prowess.

During the 1980s and 1990s, China’s specialized higher education institutions (HEIs) were joined to form larger, more diverse universities. Today, the Ministry of Education (MOE) establishes overall education policies and guides educational reforms. It sets the school system’s curricula and content of examinations. It directly oversees the universities and the higher education system. Systems of establishment and monitoring are set up by provincial educational departments. The national entrance exam (gaokao) is also set up by the ministry. The Gaokao is an extremely extensive test that lasts over 2-3 days and over nine hours and can be taken an indefinite number of times after High school. It is also the most important criterion for admission into the HEIs with a few variations.

Compulsory Education Law mandates completion of at least nine years of education starting from an age of around six or seven. The government is now pushing to universalize preschool education also. The plan had two objectives: universal education and literacy and both have nearly been achieved. This program is the fundamental program that helps students get into secondary schooling and subsequently in high schools all made to prepare students for higher education.

Not all institutions in China are authorized to grant degrees. Most of this authority is given to larger research institutions and a few larger diversified universities which serve as ‘mother institutions’ and set up campuses around the country. Independent colleges are an example of the growth of private education (minban) in China since the 1980s when laws governing the sector began to be relaxed.

Private universities have been more receptive to the needs of the employment market. They’re mostly industrial or vocational training institutions. A hierarchical higher education system has taken shape in China. Roughly speaking, at the top of the system are about 10% of the country’s research-intensive universities that are administered by the Ministry of Education and other ministries at a central level. Approximately 40% of both local public higher education institutions and four-year private independent institutions are in the middle level of the system.

On the bottom lie the remaining higher vocational colleges and private universities.

In contrast to many other countries, although the numbers of both private independent colleges and private universities and their students account for nearly one-third of the country’s higher education institutions and students respectively, none of them is research-focused or qualified to confer doctoral degrees. Altogether, these initiatives have funneled tremendous resources into prioritized top-tier universities. This stratification is coupled with higher investment in vocational training institutions, adult educational programs, and self-study programs. HEIs are also mandated to create internal quality and check mechanisms to make sure they self-regulate regularly. These internal check mechanism committees are headed up by senior faculty members to uphold the best quality.

Persisting Challenges

For all its achievements, the Chinese educational system does have its unique sets of problems too. Most of the university management under the regime is nonacademic and are party members. They have often been criticized for not taking decisions that are inclined towards academic funding and have often pushed party propaganda. Beyond this, there have been heavy restraints on the academic freedom of individuals and general liberty on campuses too. At universities, select Chinese students effectively monitor faculty speech and report deviations from the official party line to the authorities. Even in the foreign campuses in China, it is expected that there would be a degree of restraint on the freedom of speech and inquiry that is exercised on the campuses. Another big criticism of the university system is the way recruitment has been managed in the last few years. The top universities have spent a huge amount of funds in bringing in academicians of merit from outside China, often ignoring the researchers and academicians who are Chinese. This is often criticized as it is a policy to create better recognition and rankings for these universities.

Despite these challenges, the Chinese higher education system has made tremendous strides in the last two decades. While Indian higher education reforms have failed to materialize, China has been successful in making its presence felt in the top rankings of global institutions. If knowledge is likely to determine the global balance of power in the coming years, then Indian policymakers have their task cut out. The National Education Policy, 2020, announced recently is proposing some forward-looking changes but it is the implementation of these ideas which will determine if India can rise to the exploding aspirations of its students.


Jibran Khan is an intern with ORF

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