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    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

Building a Strong Higher Education System: China's Ambition
November 30, 2010 - 8:00am

China has experienced a dramatic expansion in higher education since 1999. With more than 29 million students, China has the largest higher education enrollment in the world. In 2009, the gross enrollment rate in higher education reached 24.2%. According to Martin Trow’s definition, China has entered the stage of mass higher education, which generally has a tertiary enrollment rate of 15% to 50%.

As for Chinese higher education, confronting the challenges of scale is still in progress. During the period from 2004 to 2009, quality assurance was stressed, mainly implemented through the evaluation of undergraduate teaching. But now, building a high quality national higher education system (gaodeng jiaoyu qiangguo) has become the main objective instead. According to Chinese policymakers and academic circles, China is a huge system but not yet a strong system. Recently, Chinese State Councilor, Liu Yandong, and former President of Peking University, Xu Zhihong, admitted that there is distinct disparity between China’s top universities and world-class universities. Although Peking University, traditionally acknowledged as the best university in China, ranked No. 37 in 2010 Times Higher Education Supplement, it only ranked No. 151-200 in the Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities 2010.

In July 2010, building a strong national higher education system became as one of the nation’s most important objectives elaborated in the Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020). China does need to develop higher education more broadly. However, there are two aspects of the challenge that must be clarified.

First, a country does not only need world-class universities but also outstanding provincial (local) universities and more well-run, effective tertiary vocational colleges. While leading and key national universities train future professionals for governments, universities, enterprises and other important organizations, provincial universities and tertiary vocational colleges (gaodeng zhiye yuanxiao) have their own important functions. Provincial universities receive little money form the central government and most of their revenue comes from provincial governments, tuitions and fees. Yet, provincial universities educate more graduates than the key national universities—their graduates work in a broad range of professions and play a critical role in social, economic and cultural development at the provincial and local levels. Tertiary vocational colleges train highly skilled technicians and semi-professionals. The number of tertiary vocational colleges has undergone rapid growth during the past decade. At present, tertiary vocational colleges in China represent half of the total number post-secondary institutions as well as half of the tertiary enrollment.

During recent years, while China highlighted the importance of building world-class universities, other institutions of higher education were neglected. It’s a promising sign that the landscape is changing.

Academic regulations and academic culture require more attention. If China wishes to realize the goal of a strong postsecondary system, it will be necessary to invest more than the current level of expenditure. Owing to the advantages of China’s rapid economic growth, colleges and universities have gained more resources than ever before, but the money is still not adequate. At the same time, buiding excellent academic culture and well-established regulations is as important as increasing expenditure to strengthen academic institutions in China. As Xu Zhihong (former President of Peking University) has pointed out, the weak academic environment of Chinese universities badly needs improvement.

(Kai Jiang is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education, Peking University. E-mail:


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