Author: Futao Huang
Site of publication: University World News
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: October 1st, 2019
China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (also called New China) on 1 October 2019. Despite twists and turns, China has established one of the largest higher education systems in the world. For example, Chinese universities and colleges have accommodated the largest numbers of undergraduate students worldwide, with more than 30 million students on campuses.
China’s gross enrolment ratio for higher education reached 48% of the 18-year-old population in 2018. This indicates that its higher education system will soon offer near-universal access to higher education according to United States sociologist Martin Trow’s definition.
Also, it produced and trained more than 60,000 doctoral graduates in 2018. This number is even larger than that for US universities.
Further, the status of several Chinese universities has kept moving upwards in the major global university ranking tables since the early part of the 21st century. For example, in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020, Tsinghua and Peking universities and the University of Science and Technology of China are listed among the top 100, with four other Chinese universities in the top 200.
However, little is known of what the most striking characteristics of China’s higher education are or what higher education systems China has formed over the last 70 years.
First, all higher education institutions are rigidly controlled and regulated by the central government and especially by the Communist Party. This is not only evident in the relationships between the central government, local authorities and higher education institutions but is also true in governance arrangements and management within all higher education institutions.
All presidents and party secretaries in national universities are directly selected and appointed by the Ministry of Education and other ministries at a central level. The institutional leaders of the local public higher education institutions are determined by local authorities. Even in private universities the party organisations are present and party secretaries are appointed or dispatched by the local government.
At an institutional level, dual governance patterns are adopted. According to the Higher Education Law, all higher education institutions, including private ones, have to establish grassroots-based committees of the Chinese Communist Party.
Normally all undergraduate students are required to earn about 12 academic credits from these programmes before graduation. These programmes are mainly concerned with Marxist theories, the foundation of ideologies, morals and personal cultivation and outlines of modern Chinese history
Second, the influence of political and ideological factors on teaching, research and engagement cannot be overstated. China has developed national-level compulsory programmes for all undergraduate students.
Normally all undergraduate students are required to earn about 12 academic credits from these programmes before graduation. These programmes are mainly concerned with Marxist theories, the foundation of ideologies, morals and personal cultivation and outlines of modern Chinese history.
Third, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the State Council and Ministry of Education exercise control and regulation over curriculum development and teaching and research activities through various ordinances and documents, especially through the “Categories of Undergraduate Specialities in Regular Higher Education Institutions” and “Categories of Awarding Doctoral and Master Degrees and Disciplines and Specialities of Training Postgraduate Students”.
There are 12 categories in the former, including philosophy, economics, law, education, literature, history, science, engineering, agriculture, medical science, management and art. And at the postgraduate level, there are 14 categories with military science and professional studies being the additional ones. All these fields of study were further divided into different sub-fields of study and specialties or specialisations respectively.
Finally, attaching great importance to the practical and utilitarian aspects of higher education is remarkable in comparison to many Western countries
All higher education institutions are not only asked to develop and provide specialties according to the types and contents of specialties or specifications listed in the categories, but they are also required to award only 12 and 14 types of academic degrees at the undergraduate and postgraduate studies level respectively, according to the two national categories.
Further, 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.
Finally, attaching great importance to the practical and utilitarian aspects of higher education is remarkable in comparison to many Western countries.
For example, national statistics show that, in 2018, the largest numbers of undergraduate students are those from engineering (33.4%), followed by those from administration and management (18.1%).
In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to further develop vocational education and applied universities. One of the important measures which has been widely taken is to ask universities to be engaged in the 1+X model. This model encourages undergraduate students to earn one more degree or certificate in technical or vocational studies in addition to their prospective academic degree prior to graduation.
For example, national statistics show that, in 2018, the largest numbers of undergraduate students are those from engineering (33.4%), followed by those from administration and management (18.1%)
By April 2019 about 2,040 universities and colleges of vocational and technical education had participated in the 1+X model. It is anticipated that more universities will adopt this model in their undergraduate studies. It is likely that ‘practical’ universities will form a prominent part of China’s higher education sector in contrast to the very few which become world-class universities.
Like many other Asian countries, China built modern higher education systems based on Western ideas and conventions as early as the late 19th century. By the time the New China was founded on 1 October 1949, the National Party (1911-49) had already established national higher education systems by essentially learning from the American universities.
However, radical reforms have been imposed on the existing systems and huge changes occurred in China’s higher education soon after the New China was founded.
These reforms and changes have had an evident and considerable impact on shaping the current characteristics of China’s higher education and research systems.
To illustrate, the Soviet model of higher education was introduced to China from 1949 to the late 1950s. Based on the Soviet model, China launched a national-level reform programme to restructure and readjust its higher education systems, aiming at developing a totally brand new higher education system which is different from the existing one and the American models, but is responsive and relevant to socialist construction and strengthens the Communist leadership.
In the Great Cultural Revolution period (1966-76), China tried creating its own higher education system with unique national characters and identity. Subjects about class struggle became the primary focus of its higher education institutions.
Teaching and learning activities were organised with the goal of solving particular problems in industry and agriculture. The vast majority of programmes in the humanities and social science, especially programmes concerning foreign studies and law, were dropped.
In short, university teaching stressed extreme pragmatism and curriculum development was characterised by a special emphasis on ideological issues, political studies and solving practical problems in industry and agriculture.
As can be seen, China has never stopped making efforts to build up its national higher education system with distinctive Chinese features since the late 19th century. The formation of the characteristics of the contemporary Chinese higher education system is an outcome of a mixture of learning from Western countries and maintaining the national ideology and values of Chinese culture.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.