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date: 23 September 2018

Higher Education in China

Summary and Keywords

China’s higher education system witnessed quite a few dramatic institutional changes in recent years. The state has been making a series of attempts to increase the quantity of higher education opportunities through massive expanding of higher education’s capacity (also referred to as the massification of higher education). Meanwhile, the system experienced marketization and privatization, in which the funding for higher education institutions (HEIs) increasingly depends on the non-state sector and student payments for tuition fees. The private (minban) HEIs and Sino-foreign HEIs began to develop in China. With a strong conviction to enhance the global competitiveness of top universities, master plans for developing world-class universities and disciplines were initiated, and talent programs were adopted to attract global high-skilled talent to HEIs in China to enhance the teaching and research capability of HEIs. In recent years, HEIs have been granted larger institutional autonomy with greater accountability. Higher education in China has experienced dramatic institutional changes in recent years and has made great achievements and gained international acclaim. Given such capacity, HEIs became one of the largest systems in the world. More and more higher education opportunities have been provided for students, and an increasing number of leading scholars in the world have been attracted to HEIs in China. However, the development of higher education has encountered several challenges—in particular, unequal opportunities for higher education attainment, difficulties for college graduates in finding employment, and the unequal development of higher education among disciplines, between universities, and across regions. Critical reflections on the development of higher education in China and the notion of broadly defined educational equality are required.

Keywords: higher education, massification, marketization, privatization, transnational higher education, world-class university, university governance, educational inequality, graduate employment, geographical inequality

Overview of the Chinese Higher Education System

The Education System Hierarchy

China’s current education system encompasses pre-school education (xueqianban), primary education (xiaoxue), junior (or lower) secondary education (chuzhong, also known as junior middle), senior (upper) secondary education, and higher education. The hierarchy of the education system is presented in Figure 1, with an ascending order from pre-school education to higher education. Pre-school education is intended for children aged three to five, and it is not compulsory. The nine-year compulsory education has covered primary and lower secondary education since 1986, when the Compulsory Education Law was implemented. The upper secondary education and higher education are neither compulsory nor free of tuition.

Higher Education in ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 1. School System of Mainland China. School years refer to the average years required for graduation from China’s schools.

Notes: a. Secondary Vocational Education includes specialized secondary school (zhongzhuan), vocational high school (zhiye gaozhong), and skilled workers school (jigong xuexiao).

b. The associate higher education degree program is usually offered by junior colleges, including higher vocational colleges (gaozhi) and specialized colleges (gaozhuan).

c. The years refer to normal years required for graduation from the programs; the actual years may vary across disciplines.

Source: The author created the graph based on information compiled from the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China and the National Center for Education Development Research, Chinese National Commission for UNESCO (2008).

Formal higher education offers four levels of degrees: associate higher education degree, bachelor’s degree (attained from an undergraduate program), master’s degree, and doctoral degree. The associate higher education degree program is usually offered by junior colleges, including higher vocational colleges (gaozhi) and specialized colleges (gaozhuan). Regular universities offer programs for bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees. Undergraduate education normally requires four years to graduate, while the actual years may vary across disciplines (for example, five years are required for a bachelor’s degree in medicine).

As of May 30, 2016, China had 2,879 higher education institutions (HEIs), including 2,595 regular colleges and universities (with 266 independent colleges),1 and 284 adult colleges and universities. Of 2,595 regular colleges and universities, 1,236 offer undergraduate programs (benke) or above, while 1,359 HEIs offer associate higher education degree programs (dazhuan). In addition to regular public HEIs, there are three types of regular HEIs, specifically, private (minban) HEIs (734 institutions), Sino-foreign cooperative HEIs (5 institutions), and mainland-and-Hong Kong cooperative HEIs (2 institutions).2

Higher Education Admissions

Students who want to transit from an upper secondary school to an HEI take the annual National College Entrance Exam (gaokao). This exam is competitive and standardized, and is administrated at the provincial level.3 Admission to HEIs is largely determined by students’ exam scores from the National College Entrance Exam (Hannum, An, Yu, & Cherng, 2011; Wang et al., 2011). The performance on the exam mainly determines whether a student will go to a junior college, ordinary university, or key university. In applying for admission to college, students should submit a list of colleges and majors in order of personal preference (zhiyuan form). The educational authorities of a province or municipality match students to HEIs and majors according to students’ performance on the National College Exam as well as their choices. At the end of the matching process, a student is assigned an HEI and a major (Loyalka, Song, Wei, Zhong, & Rozelle, 2013; Wang et al., 2011). While most students need to take the National College Entrance Exam for a higher education application, a tiny proportion of applicants are recommended by their upper secondary school (usually selective key point schools) to be exempted from the exam due to their exceptional or special talents.

The admission quotas of higher education are determined annually by the national system of provincial admission quotas, which determines how many students will be enrolled in HEIs in each province. Each provincial division (i.e., province or municipality) is a separate college admission district. The provincial admission quotas are explicit and are broken down into local students (within the same provincial division as the institution) and non-local students (a subset of specific other provincial divisions). However, the vast majority of enrollees in any admission district are local students (for a detailed discussion about the Admission Districts and the Quota System, see Tam & Jiang, 2015).

Tuition Fee Payment

In early years, students enrolled in HEIs did not need to pay tuition fees for their studies, and they could receive living stipends from the state. However, in the late 1980s, colleges and universities could charge tuition fees and accommodation fees, while a substantial portion of admission quotas remained government-funded. Since 1997, all new students had to be self-financed (Hannum et al., 2011). The average tuition fee ranged from 4,000 to 6,000 yuan (Chinese dollar) per student per year in 2014, which is 6%–8% of the average income of an urban household, and 9%–21% of the average income of a rural household.4

As HEIs charge the same tuition fees irrespective of students’ backgrounds (Liu et al., 2011; Wang et al., 2011), students from rural households, lower-income families, or less-developed areas may face difficulties affording the tuition fees and living expenses. According to the Report by the Poverty Alleviation Office (2008), a college student’s estimated annual expense (including tuition, books, living expenses, and incidentals) is over nine times the per capita income for a rural family at China’s poverty level in 2008. To remove financial barriers to college admission, the government and universities provide financial support to students (such as student subsidies, student loans, and scholarships).5

Institutional Changes in Chinese Higher Education

Experienced development in Chinese HEIs has been accompanied by several main institutional changes. Specifically, the capacity of higher education has increased rapidly, and provides more access to higher education for students in China. Meanwhile, the system has experienced marketization and privatization, in which the funding for HEIs increasingly depends on non-state sectors and student payments toward tuition fees. Private (minban) HEIs and Sino-foreign HEIs began to develop in China. Moreover, the Chinese government has been making serious attempts to develop world-class universities and disciplines, and the higher education system has become more stratified. In response to institutional changes, the new modes of China’s higher education governance grant HEIs more institutional autonomy, accompanied by greater accountability.

Massification of Higher Education

Over recent decades, the higher education system has witnessed a massive expansion and moved from an elite status to massification (Mok & Jiang, 2017a). China is a latecomer in terms of access to HEIs, but the Chinese government has displayed strong convictions to rapidly expand the higher education system since 1998. The Ministry of Education (MOE) of the People’s Republic of China issued “The Action Plan to Vitalize Education in the 21st Century” in 1998, stating that the government had targeted an increase in the enrolment for higher education. In fact, MOE initially planned to achieve an increase of 20% of higher education enrolment for 1999; the number was further revised to 47% (Wan, 2006).

Amid the higher education expansion, both higher education enrolment and gross enrolment rate (enrolment relative to age cohort) recorded tremendous growth. The enrolment for higher education increased slowly, from 0.62 million in 1985 to 1.08 million in 1998, and then jumped to 1.6 million in 1999. The number continued to increase to 7.2 million in 2014, more than 10 times the reported rates of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the enrolment rate of higher education also increased at an unprecedented rate, ranging from 1.8% in 1985 to 7% in 1999, and 37% in 2014 (see details in Figure 2). The increasing trends of higher education enrolment and enrolment rate indicate that the higher education system capacity and relative education opportunity experienced an unprecedented growth. According to Trow’s (1973) definition of three-stage (elite, mass, and universal) higher education development, China’s higher education system experienced a transformation from elite status to a mass form in a short period of time. China’s higher education development was in an elite stage (below 15%) before 1990, and in a mass stage (between 15% and 50%) since 1990.6

Higher Education in ChinaClick to view larger

Figure 2. National Enrolment and Enrolment Rate of Higher Education in Mainland China, 1990–2014.

Note: Enrolment of higher education is the number of students enrolled in regular HEIs in mainland China. Enrolment rate of higher education is measured by the enrolment of higher education relative to the corresponding cohort size. The number of students enrolled in primary school of corresponding cohorts is used as the proxy of the cohort size, as the direct measure of cohort size is not available.

Source: Educational Statistics Yearbook of China, 1978–2015.

As massification of higher education provides more educational opportunity, students may increase their life opportunities and, further, increase the quality of the overall population. However, such massification also creates challenges for the further development of higher education. For example, greater access to higher education does not automatically increase equality in higher education. In addition, the expanding capacity and access may outstrip the ability of institutions to maintain the quality of higher education. The detailed challenges related to the massification of higher education will be discussed in the third section.

Marketization and Decentralization

The Chinese higher education system has been experiencing a restructuring based on marketization and decentralization in recent decades (Mok & Xu, 2008). The principle of marketization (shichanghua) in education is “a process whereby education becomes a commodity provided by competitive suppliers, educational services are priced, and access to them depends on consumer calculations and ability to pay” (Yin & White, 1994, p. 217). Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has opened the education market by allowing non-state sectors to offer higher education learning opportunities (Mok, 2000). The private (minban)7 HEIs thus began to develop. The funding of minban HEIs does not come from the state; instead, it mainly depends on non-state financial supports, including individual contributions, student tuition fees, and social donations. The marketization of higher education is related to the state’s recognition of its insufficient resources to satisfy people’s pressing demands for higher education (Mok, 1997), as well as the decentralization policy (Mok, 2002). In particular, the Higher Education Law of the People’s Republic of China, issued in 1998, encourages diversified modes of educational services and grants more flexibility for local and provincial governments to run higher education, allowing HEIs to have greater autonomy for their management.

The emergence of minban HEIs and the tuition fee-charging policy suggests that the responsibility for the provision of higher education has shifted from the state to families and individuals. In the process, internal competition among HEIs was also introduced. All of these institutional changes indicate that the higher education system in China has been experiencing a process of marketization (Mok, 1997, 2000, 2002).

In the process of the decentralization of the administration and finance of higher education, the central government has shifted from a centralist model to a decentralized approach by deliberately devolving responsibility and power to local government, local communities, and other non-state sectors to involve themselves in creating more learning opportunities. Local government and HEIs were granted more autonomy and flexibility in the HEIs’ management and development (Mok, 2002).

Transnational Higher Education

To meet the increasing demands of higher education, the Chinese government has opened the higher education market to non-state sectors in China, and it encourages overseas universities to offer higher education opportunities in mainland China through collaboration with local HEIs. Drawing on the good practices of overseas universities, the collaboration between foreign and local HEIs can co-launch academic programs and jointly establish Sino-foreign universities, if granted approval from the Ministry of Education (called zhongai hezuo banxue in Chinese). This collaborative approach is one of the important forms of transnational higher education in China. According to UNESCO (2000), transnational education refers to an education in which learners are located in a country different from where the awarding institution is based. Leading Chinese universities have also begun to provide transnational higher education in foreign countries in recent years.8 However, the development of transnational higher education provided for local Chinese students in mainland China has been making great progress since China became a member of the World Trade Organization and signed the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Huang, 2003; Mok & Xu, 2008).

Currently, there are 68 Sino-foreign cooperative HEIs (including collaboration with HEIs in Hong Kong and Taiwan) offering 890 undergraduate programs.9 As of May 30, 2016, seven Sino-foreign universities have been approved by the MOE with independent legal person status, including New York University Shanghai, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Duke Kunshan University, The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, Wenzhou-Kean University, Beijing Normal University—Hong Kong Baptist University United International College, and The Chinese University of Hong Kong Shenzhen.10

The Quest for World-Class University

To enable some leading Chinese HEIs to become world-class universities, the Chinese government implemented several projects to enhance the global competitiveness of a few selected top-tier national universities by providing state resources to these universities (Mok, 2005; Mok & Wei, 2008). “Project 211” and “Project 985” are two such main national schemes. “Project 211” was initiated by the MOE in 1993, with the mission to develop approximately 100 national key universities and key disciplinary areas as a national priority in the 21st century. Currently, 114 (the number would total 116 if considering two universities of two branches in different provinces) are defined as Project 211 universities.11 Project 985, announced in 1998, aimed to promote the development of top Chinese universities as world-class universities in the 21st century. There are currently 39 leading universities included in the program.12

Universities enlisted in Project 211 and Project 985 have received priority funding and preferential treatment from the state for improvement of infrastructures, development of disciplines, and support of teaching and research. Project 211 offered select universities the opportunity to bid for nearly $20 billion USD in priority government funding. In Project 985, Peking University and Tsinghua University, the top two universities in China, received $225 million USD each over the course of five years (World Education News and Reviews, 2006).

In June 2016, the MOE invalidated some documents of these programs, indicating that Project 211 and Project 985 were no longer valid. This invalidation can be interpreted as a new, comprehensive way to develop global competitiveness among HEIs in China, by implementing a new strategic plan to develop the world’s top-class universities and disciplines. This strategic plan, referred to as the “Double World Class Project” (shuang yiliu), was announced by the central government in 2015, targeting the development of some leading universities and disciplines to become the world’s best in the first phase of 2016–2020. The number of world-class universities and disciplines will further increase by 2030, with a significant improvement in the quality of higher education in general. Moreover, the quantity and quality of China’s top-class universities and disciplines are targeted to be the front-runners of the world by the mid-century (State Council of People’s Republic of China, 2015).

To attain world-class university status, universities must compete globally for top talents and resources (Jiang, 2018; Wang, Tang, & Li, 2014). The central government has created concrete plans to actively attract overseas high-level talent. Studies suggest that these talent programs have attracted significant numbers of highly skilled individuals to return to China in recent years (Wang et al., 2014; Zweig, 2006). The Chang Jiang Scholars Programme13 may be regarded as the first large and influential program, since the Chinese government’s decision to expand higher education (Jiang, 2018), to attract outstanding overseas scholars globally. This program was established by the Li Ka-shing Foundation (LKSF) and the MOE, in 1998, and had an initial funding of 60 million HK dollars provided by the LKSF, in addition to funds matched by the MOE. The program supports Chinese universities by providing preferential measures to attract higher-level scholars, appointing them as Chang Jiang Scholar Chair Professors or Distinguished Professors, both of which are considered to be most prestigious scholarly honors in China.14 As of 2015, 3,032 Chang Jiang Scholars were recruited by the program in mainland China, and these scholars have made great achievements in research and teaching (Jiang, 2018).

Changing Governance of Higher Education

Chinese government confronts a number of new challenges in governing the higher education sector with its changing institutional characteristics. For example, how to manage the public–private boundary, and tensions between the state and emerging private/minban education institutions amid the marketization, and decentralization process (Mok, 2009); how to manage the common irregularities in program operation and achieve quality assurance in transnational higher education while involving overseas higher education providers (Mok & Han, 2017; Ong & Chan, 2012); and how to develop a world-class university system, subject to new external standards, while maintaining internal governance (Mok, 2010, 2012).

In response to such pressing demands for change, new modes of China’s higher education governance are emerging. Higher education institutions enjoy increasing institutional autonomy accompanied by greater accountability (Mok, 2003b, 2010; Pan, 2009, pp. 7–34). Universities have been granted greater autonomy in academic areas, finance, human resources, and other internal managements, such as the appointment of academic staff and administrators, recruitment of students (capacity and criteria), curriculum, and course development (Li & Yang, 2015; Mok & Han, 2016). Meanwhile, the government retains considerable power in constituting the institutional autonomy of higher education institutions (Mok & Han, 2017; Wang, 2010). The central government continues to retain control of the extent, procedure, and pace of decentralization, as well as the appointment of university presidents and party secretaries (Li & Yang, 2015).

This seems to be a paradox of centralization and decentralization in China’s higher education governance in recent year. The so-called “centralized decentralization” (Li & Yang, 2015; Mok, 2003b) reflects the special dynamics of China’s changing governance of higher education. Higher education institutions in China become semi-independent—not completely independent from the government, nor under complete and strict control of the government. Instead, they maintain relatively independence in certain areas while partially integrated with the government (Pan, 2009, pp. 179–212).

Challenges of Higher Education Development

Higher education in China has experienced dramatic institutional changes in recent years, making great achievements and gaining international acclaim. The capacity of the higher education system is one of the largest systems in the world; more and more higher education opportunities have been provided for students, and an increasing number of leading scholars in the world have been attracted to HEIs in China. However, the development of higher education has faced challenges; in particular, the inequality of higher education attainment among students, difficulties among college graduates in obtaining employment, and the unequal development of higher education are all issues that require attention.

Inequality in Higher Education Attainment

Educational inequality is one of the most important issues surrounding the development of higher education. Scholars are interested in determining whether and how the effects of family origins on higher education attainment (usually referred to as the inequality of education opportunity, or IEO) change amid the institutional development of higher education (in particular, the massification of higher education). The maximally maintained inequality (MMI) hypothesis and the effectively maintained inequality (EMI) hypothesis may be considered as the two most influential and classic perspectives regarding the persistence of IEO. The MMI hypothesis suggests that students from advantaged family backgrounds have the ability to capture new opportunities for expansion, and the IEO declines only after the advantaged students have saturated their access to the level of education (Raftery & Hout, 1993). The EMI hypothesis further points out that, even after saturation, advantaged students can still distinguish themselves from other students by maintaining better achievement (e.g., by participating in better schooling tracks and further schooling) (Lucas, 2001).

Scholars investigating the IEO in Chinese higher education also find support for the MMI and EMI hypotheses. Specifically, some studies compared the effects of parental education and occupation in determining students’ admission to higher education before and after higher education expansion, and found that students from better family backgrounds have increased advantages in higher education admission (Li, 2010; Yang, 2006; Yeung, 2013). In addition, the advantages of students from better-educated backgrounds in attending a four-year university almost doubled after higher education massification (Liu, 2006). Students from better-educated families saw increased advantage in higher education attendance, while higher education opportunities for students from less-educated families were depressed during higher education expansion (Jiang & Tam, 2015).

In addition to parental advantages of education, occupation, and income, hukou status is an important determinant in students’ higher education attendance. In recent decades, the cohort trends of students holding urban and rural hukou in HEI attendance has widened dramatically. Early studies suggest interpreting the widening urban-rural gap in higher education as due to the increasing advantages of urban students over rural students in school quality and household financial resources that facilitate urban students in higher education admission (e.g., Liu et al., 2011; Wang et al., 2011; Yang, 2006). However, Tam and Jiang (2015) find that the widening gap is due to the unintended consequences of a state policy: the concentrated urban expansion of vocational upper secondary education. This urban-biased educational policy makes the opportunity for expansion inaccessible for most rural students, while it helps lower-achieving urban students remain in the “pipeline” for college.

Graduate Employment and Social Mobility

In recent decades, the labor market has become increasingly competitive, particularly during the massification of higher education and the global economic recession. Recent cohorts of higher education graduates in Western and East-Asian countries have experienced difficulties in the labor market (Mok & Jiang, 2017b). China is not an exceptional case in terms of graduate employment.

Recent studies suggest that quite a few higher education graduates in China faced problems of joblessness and precarious work status (Bai, 2006; Chan & Lin, 2016; Mok & Wu, 2016). Since 2002, when higher education graduates experiencing the first tide of dramatic college expansion began to enter the labor market, the number of college-educated workers grew. Meanwhile, the unemployment numbers increased, and the overall employment rate decreased. The matched time trends imply that the expansion of higher education may lead to the unemployment in the labor market (Mok & Jiang, 2017a).

Some graduates were suffering from difficulties in finding jobs that matched their knowledge and skills (Bai, 2006; Mok, 2016). Further, their salary level and earning premiums were slow or even “flattened” of growth momentum (Mok & Jiang, 2017b). More and more higher education graduates were dissatisfied with their employment, especially those who came from rural areas to enroll in universities located in major cities (Wen & Ngok, 2011).

In addition, a recent study shows that college graduates increasingly began to rely on their family backgrounds to find jobs compared to previous cohorts. In a youth survey conducted at universities in Guangzhou (one of the largest cities in Southern China), around 80% of the graduating students perceived that family background was a substantial factor in their employment and future career development, while only 7% of them considered family background to not have any influence (Mok & Jiang, 2017a). Students’ perception of the importance of family background was supported by the empirical evidence drawn from the national social survey. Results from a recent nationally representative social survey, the Chinese General Social Survey 2008, showed that almost 20% of college graduates depend on their families to help them obtain their first job. This number was nearly double the rate occurring prior to the higher education expansion. Moreover, familial assistance has become more aggressive than ever: it now involves more direct interactions in the recruitment process, such as submitting application materials and arranging meetings with an employer’s agent (Mok & Jiang, 2017a).

In sum, although college graduates may enjoy advantages in knowledge and skills compared to those without a college degree, they still face challenges in obtaining employment. To win in the competitive labor market, families are more likely to mobilize their social resources to help their offspring. Family background and social resources play increasingly important roles in graduates’ employment and future career development. Graduates from lower-class families that lack social resources may be disadvantaged in the competitive labor market, despite the fact that they have a college degree. This is also the reason why most of the graduating students in a youth survey at Guangzhou perceived that the channels for college graduates’ upward social mobility were narrower than before (Mok & Jiang, 2017a).

Chinese college graduates were assigned jobs by the state in early years, but since 1996, they have had to find jobs on their own. This change coincided with the marketization process in which students must pay tuition fees for higher education. College graduates encountering difficulties in the job market may experience doubt not only as to whether it is worth paying for higher education in terms of their economic return to higher education, but also regarding their future social mobility, despite holding a college degree. What has been occurring in China echoes recent research that has challenged the notion that obtaining a collegiate diploma gives individuals a competitive advantage. It has been affirmed that higher education fails to deliver on its promise when access to such education is massively expanded (Brown, Lauder, & Ashton, 2011).

Unequal Development of Higher Education

Recent institutional changes in higher education throughout mainland China have lead to challenges in the development of higher education in terms of stratification within and between HEIs, as well as unequal development of higher education across regions. Not only do HEIs in mainland China differentiate junior colleges (mainly offering associate’s degrees of higher education) and universities (mainly offering undergraduate degrees and above), there is also stratification within universities. Further, the quest for a world-class university policy reinforced stratification both between and within HEIs (Mok & Chan, 2008). Aligned with the central government’s strategic plan of developing world-class universities, large amounts of financial support from the central and local government were provided to key selected research universities with top priority according to Project 211 and Project 985.

In addition to the exceptional funding support, the universities involved with these two projects are labeled as key high-quality universities, thus holding better positions to attract global talent. For example, consider the Changjiang Scholar Programme: around 94% of professors in this program were appointed by the key universities of Project 211, and 76% were appointed by 39 elite universities of Project 985. Non-Project 211 universities attracted only 6% of Changjiang professors (Jiang, 2018).

In the global ranking exercise, academic research is usually crucial to evaluating the global competitiveness of a university, and publication in a high-impact journal is one of the most significant measures of evaluation. The disciplines in which scholars are more likely to generate publications received more support (such as nature science and engineering), while some disciplines (such as the humanities and arts) may be disadvantaged in obtaining funds. Meanwhile, the measurement metric in terms of publication may also result in greater emphasis on research rather than on teaching and other activities.

In addition, the regional and/or geographical inequality of higher education development is an important issue. The marketization and decentralization of higher education intensified the regional disparities in the funding of schools between the economically developed areas (e.g., the eastern coastal area) and the less economically developed areas (e.g., the middle and northwest areas) (Mok, Wong, & Zhang, 2009). The decentralized education financial schemes require local government and HEIs to provide much of the funds for schools, which are closely related to local economic circumstances (Hannum & Wang, 2006).

Unequal distribution of the Project 985 and Project 211 universities (i.e., leading universities in China) also indicates the geographic inequality of higher education development. Eight out of 39 (18%) universities of Project 985 are located in Beijing, the capital of China, while some provinces/ and autonomous regions (e.g., Henan, Yunnan, Hainan, Guangxi, Jiangxi, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang) do not have a single university involved with Project 985. Although there are more than 100 universities in Project 211, these universities are highly concentrated in Beijing (26 universities), Jiangsu Province (11 universities), and Shanghai (10 universities), while some provinces and autonomous regions (usually those provinces without Project 985 universities) have only one Project 211 university.

As previously discussed, Project 985 and Project 211 universities were granted more funding and resource supports. These universities have greater advantages in attracting high-skilled talent in teaching and research. For example, consider the Chang Jiang Scholar Programme: in this national program, created to attract the world’s leading scholars, the three provincial divisions having the largest number of Project 211 universities have attracted the largest number of Chang Jiang Scholars as of 2015. Specifically, the number of Chang Jiang Scholars in Beijing is 832; Shanghai has 399; and Jiangsu Province has 266. However, Hainan Province and Ningxia Autonomous Region have only one Chang Jiang Scholar each (Jiang, 2018).


The development of higher education is complex and can be achieved according to various scopes and pathways. China’s higher education system witnessed quite a few dramatic institutional changes, such as marketization, privatization, massification, and transnationalization. The state has made great attempts to increase the quantity and improve the quality of HEIs, and aims to meet the pressing needs of the educational economy and the enhancement of global competitiveness among universities in the world. In addition to its many great achievements, higher education in China has experienced challenges in terms of higher education attainment, graduate employment, and unequal development in disciplines between universities and across regions.

The main issues discussed in this article involve challenges to several dimensions of equality. First, equality in higher education attainment is a crucial concern. The expansion of higher education has created greater access to higher education, but the new opportunities are not equally distributed among students from various family backgrounds. Earlier discussion shows that students from upper-class families have increased advantages in entering HEIs, while students from lower-class families become more disadvantaged. This problem grew more serious as it coincided with the unequal distribution of leading universities, which were located mainly in economically developed regions. Students from disadvantaged families and economically less-developed regions would be doubly disadvantaged in obtaining a high quality of education. The quality of higher education opportunity is very important in the context of the massification of higher education in China. Further, equality will not truly be achieved if the increased access for students from lower-class families exists at the cost of deteriorating the quality of higher education.

Second, the inequality problem may perpetuate if more and more college graduates are forced to rely on their family backgrounds to beat competition in employment in the labor market during the post-massification of higher education. This may lead to doubts regarding the role of higher education in improving the competitiveness of graduates in the job market, as well as its role in improving their life opportunities and promoting social mobility. Amid the marketization of higher education, the problem for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds may be more serious, as their families are forced to pay large tuition fees (compared to their household financial resources) while their economic returns suffer simultaneously.

Third, the stratification of the higher education system would be intensified by recent strategic plans of establishing world-class universities and disciplines. In 2015, the Chinese government launched the new master plan of developing a number of top universities and disciplines in China to edge up to world-class universities and disciplines (shuang yiliu). This new plan is expected to tackle the problems (e.g., redundant construction and lack of competition within leading universities) brought about by prior Project 985 and Project 211, and to enhance the global competitiveness of a few selected top-tier national universities and disciplines. The higher education system will continue to stratify into two extremes: select national universities and leading disciplines will ambitiously develop their global competitiveness to attain world-class status, while other ordinary HEIs receive insufficient funding and resource support for further development. In addition, the excessive emphasis on building research capabilities may create an imbalance between research and teaching, and between undergraduate and postgraduate training.

In sum, this article critically reflects on the notion of broadly defined educational equality in China amid the dramatic development of higher education. Future education governance frameworks are expected to address the challenges of higher education development and promote educational equality across multiple dimensions. The new governance model must also be held accountable for protecting the weak and disadvantaged.


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(1.) Independent college (duli xueyuan) is a new type of hybrid HEI, which is a private-run, second-tier college affiliated with a public university. See J. Liu, (2014), Independent colleges: A hybrid response to massification, University World News (November 7).

(2.) See a detailed list of the HEIs provided by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (in Chinese). The summary statistics were conducted by the author.

(3.) The provincial level is the highest administrative division in mainland China. Currently, there are 31 such divisions in mainland China, including 22 provinces, 4 municipalities, and 5 autonomous regions. Hong Kong and Macau, two special administrative regions of China, are not part of the National College Entrance Examination system.

(4.) Please see Ministry Education, (2014), Adjusted procedural funding has been preceded, which provides a reply of the financial division of the MOE to reporters regarding the changes in tuition fees (in Chinese).

(5.) See the previous note.

(6.) The estimation is approximate, as the enrolment of primary education is used as a proxy of the size of the corresponding cohort.

(7.) Minban literally means “people-run.” When referring to private HEIs in China, the terms minban and private are used interchangeably. People usually label privately owned schools as minban instead of private schools, a way of surviving the state’s discomfort with the notion of private in socialist China (Mok, 1997).

(8.) One example is the collaboration between Tongji University in Shanghai, China and Politecnico di Milano and Politecnico di Torino, Italy, for the development of joint programs and establishment of the Sino-Italian campus in Italy.

(9.) The author summarized the information based on the site Ministry of Education: Chinese Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools.

(10.) The information summarized by the author is based on the official websites for the aforementioned universities, in addition to the website of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (in Chinese).

(11.) See more details at the MOE Introduction of 211 Project website (in Chinese).

(12.) For more details on this project, see the MOE Introduction to 985 Project website (in Chinese).

(13.) This program is also known as the Cheung Kong Scholars Programme and the Yangtze River Scholars Programme.

(14.) For more details, please see the official website (in Chinese) of the Chinese talent programs , as well as the website of the Li Ka Shing Foundation.