• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Is China Shifting Toward a Binary System?

Chinese higher education enrollment soared from 3.4 million in 1998 to 22.3 million in 2010, a 6.6 times increase over 12 years.

March 29, 2014

In the past decade or so, Chinese higher education struck the world with its amazing pace of expansion. The aggregate enrollment grew at an annual rate of 17% between 1998 and 2010. In absolute numbers, Chinese higher education enrolment soared from 3.4 million in 1998 to 22.3 million in 2010, a 6.6 times increase over 12 years. The number of institutions increased from 1,022 to 2,358 during this time span, or by 2.3 times. If all kinds of enrolments are taken into account, China’s higher education participation rate (of 18-22 age group) reached 15% (the recognized threshold of mass higher education) in 2002, and 26.5% in 2010, up from 9.8% in 1998. The participation rate grew nearly 17% in 12 years. In 2007, the Chinese higher education system overtook the American system in terms of enrolment size, and became the world’s largest one. In this process, the Chinese government and the local governments played a pivotal role, creating incentives for fast enrolment expansion and supporting massive development of institutional infrastructure.

There have been hot discussions with respect to equity issues and graduate unemployment in Chinese higher education. The increasingly steep hierarchy of the Chinese system has aroused enormous concerns over whether education could still facilitate social mobility. Rather, the prestigious elite universities are now accused of nurturing the “refined egoists”. At the lower echelons, it is no secret that over 30% of the graduates are now having difficulties finding a job after graduation. While the Chinese system aims to provide 40% of the age cohort with some form of higher education by 2020, it clearly needs to find solutions to those pressing problems. At the core are the needs to widen the path of social mobility (perceptually and practically) and increase the relevance of higher education.


The system responds

A number of changes are currently occurring in the Chinese system. Paradoxically, at top of the hierarchy, there seems to be a move towards “re-centralization.” It is well known that Chinese higher education decentralized in the 1990s, whereby around 250 universities were put under the jurisdiction of the provincial governments. This move was unprecedented in the history of Chinese higher education. In the meantime, the local higher education sector grew quickly, dominating China’s higher education expansion since the late 1990s. Some 500 new universities emerged in the process, from amalgamation and upgrading of local colleges, while even more higher vocational colleges and private institutions came into being. Consequently, the national universities now represent a much smaller share of the Chinese system, while the local sector now makes up the bulk of the system. These changes, together with elite university schemes such as Projects 985 and 211, in turn serve to further "hierarchize" the Chinese system. More recently, China’s Ministry of Education (MoE) as well as some other central ministries have gradually co-sponsored a selected group of local universities with the provincial governments. Those local universities selected in this scheme would enjoy similar status as the national universities, with enhanced support (fundamentally in terms of resources and strategic planning). This move has put the aggregate size of national and semi-national universities almost back to the level before decentralization.

Hundreds of newly founded local universities emerged amid expansion of enrolment. Initially, they emulated the traditional universities with respect to curricular and program offerings, and with the fast growing sectors of higher vocational colleges and private institutions, played a major role in absorbing increased enrolment. For a while, they rode the wave and dramatically expanded their enrolment and infrastructure. However, they soon experienced difficulties. In order to ensure the quality of their curricular and program offerings, they were subjected to periodic evaluation and assessment by the MoE, and benchmarked against more mature universities. This not only applied enormous pressure upon them but placed them in a hopeless competition with peers. Even worse, this competition prejudiced their graduates in job market as they often lost opportunities to graduates from older universities as well as to those from some higher vocational colleges and private institutions due to the greater relevance of their programs and skills. As a result, many of the new universities now seek to transform their curricular and program offerings, and are keen to label themselves as Fachhochschulen-like universities of applied sciences.

To facilitate this transformation, the MoE initiated a project that aims to introduce the institutional fabric of European-originated applied type of universities to the Chinese system, and supported the founding of a national alliance of these institutions in 2013. This alliance serves as a hub to explore the niche for this type of institution on Chinese soil. Its membership quickly expanded to include more than 150 local universities. In the province of Anhui in central China, 16 universities (of a total of 33 in the province) formed a similar consortium in 2008, helping one another to integrate the ideas, experiences and functions of the German Fachhochschule and meet the needs of local and regional economies through program development more responsive to local development. A consensus has formed among these newly founded local universities, that they need to follow an alternative path and focus on curricular and program offerings in applied arts and technology. They see this path as the solution to addressing their lack of competitiveness in attracting students and preparing them for employment.


New kinds of graduate programs

It appears that China is shifting towards a binary higher education system, from the current unitary one whereby all institutions are governed according to a single set of criteria. While it is premature to state a binary system has taken shape in Chinese higher education, the MoE is opening new paths to graduate education as well. New universities are entitled to apply to offer advanced degree programs after 8-years of operating of undergraduate programs. A few dozen new universities are starting to offer master’s programs with clear relevance to local needs, and even professional doctoral programs.

Most recently, the MoE launched a pilot project that allows new universities to offer master’s and doctoral degree programs even before they fulfil the minimum years of operating undergraduate programs, as long as they can prove that their advanced degree programs are explicitly geared towards meeting the specific needs of the local, regional and national development.


More changes ahead

An MoE vice minister disclosed on March 22, 2014 that China would soon adopt dual track selection of university entrants, one for academic-focused universities, and the other for applied-type institutions. She further revealed that the MoE had prepared to convert around 600 local universities into institutions of applied arts and technology.

Thus, it is likely that Chinese higher education will have two parallel and discrete systems. One system will comprise the national, semi-national, and local universities that are included in Project 211, as well as a few dozen traditional local universities founded prior to the higher education expansion of the late 1990s. There are no more than 500 in total, and they provide a broad array of programs in the established disciplines and professions. They are academic and “cosmopolitan” in their outlook, and, as such, support intensive research. The other system will consist of the new universities, higher vocational colleges and private institutions, incorporating close to 2,000 universities and colleges that are local, and teaching and service oriented. If they conduct any research, it is applied research.

Despite the fact that such a binary divide is not favored any more in some other systems, e.g., Australia and the UK, it helps diversify the interpretation of higher education quality and contributes to its relevance, while improving equity by providing alternative paths. This is of particular significance in a system like the China’s, where there is a strong tradition of meritocracy and also elitism in higher education.


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