• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


A Quiet Revolution in Chinese Universities

A quiet revolution might now be observed along with emergence of a group of separate experimental colleges at 17 universities.

July 7, 2014

In the decade to come, many changes with respect to the governance of Chinese universities are expected. At the policy level, the National Outline for Medium- and Long-Term Educational Reform and Development (2010-2020) or the 2020 Blueprint, calls for building a modern university system on Chinese soil, granting and securing academic freedom and university autonomy. Chinese universities are now encouraged to draw up their charters that are supposed to define the boundaries within which they should have jurisdiction. Observers are curious as well as doubtful that the government will voluntarily take its hands off and whether universities will enjoy true autonomy over their own operations.  A quiet revolution might now be observed along with emergence of a group of separate experimental colleges at 17 universities.

A “Special Zone” within Chinese Universities

This initiative started in 2011 to establish a special zone within the realm of higher education, to experiment with more faculty authority over academic affairs and latitude for innovation. It embarked on a broad idea without explicit guidelines until November 2012 when China’s Ministry of Education officially assumed oversight of experimental colleges with specific objectives, including implementation of democratic governance, autonomy over program development, new faculty hiring, student recruitment, resource allocations, and pedagogical reform. A charter and a board will comprise the core of institutionalized arrangements for democratic governance in each experimental unit. A professorial committee will nominate candidates for deanships and represent the faculty in decision-making related to teaching, research and administration within the unit. An academic committee will oversee disciplinary area development and academic performance assessment, to protect the unit from interference in the academic sphere. The experimental colleges are being encouraged to build internal capacity to manage their own development, including the establishment of incentive and regulatory mechanisms. They are assuming responsibility and risk.

How Do Experimental Colleges Operate?

In a sense, this experimentation in academic sphere is similar to the economic initiative in the 1980s with the establishment of a number of special economic zones in China, that spearheaded the opening up of the country’s economy. Both initiatives attempt to break through restraints imposed by the existing system—economic and academic— and feature a bottom-up approach of “crossing a river by feeling the stones.” The experimental colleges have come up with different and sometimes unique practices along the lines set out by this initiative. For instance, in Tianjin University (founded in 1895 as China’s the first modern university), the College of Precision Instrument & Opto-electronics Engineering is the university’s experimental unit and has adopted a unique approach to administration, placing academics at the core of decision-making, optimizing their academic power and abolishing the traditional administrative unit of department to cut down and curb administrative power in the operations of teaching and research. Now a system consisting of PI (Principal Investigator)-led groups is put in place to operate major research activities, executed by project teams within the group. In such a system, an academic PI has the full power to decide new hires and resource allocations. The PI and the project leaders under him/her are supposed to be recruited globally. In the organization of teaching, a system based on a Chair Professor (CP) is created; this person is in charge of program and curriculum development, educational standards and teaching content, student evaluation and assessment in a specific field, as well as appointment of course instructors and evaluation of teaching outcome. Both the Principal Investigator and the Chair Professor are appointed for a term of three years, and evaluation of their performance is tied to their term of appointment, rather than conducted annually.

Such autonomy over academic operations also finds expression in student recruitment. In the case of Tianjin University, new students still have to be screened through the national university entrance examination (gaokao), but a new path selects students partially on their gaokao scores and partially on their performance in interviews organized and conducted by the College. Now an increasing portion of the students come through such a path, whereby their gaokao scores account for 60% and interview performance makes the other 40% of their application; the interview is entirely controlled by the College, evaluated on the content and items judged important by a local expert academic panel.

Experimental Colleges Usher in a Quiet Revolution

Given the absence and insufficiency of democratic governance in Chinese universities for decades, the universities often suffer from inertia in exercising their autonomy—even if they are provided with such an opportunity—let alone pushing for more autonomy. To facilitate progress, dynamism and initiatives need to be brought into play from the bottom up. While the 2020 Blueprint expresses the policy design from the top, the practice of granting university charters exhibits a top-down approach as well, whereby Chinese universities are required to work their charters from a pattern/model pre-set by the government. In contrast, the experience of experimental colleges showcases a bottom-up approach, whereby grassroots initiatives can be identified and implemented. Notably, the whole idea of creating experimental colleges stemmed from a suggestion made by a group of veteran scholars in March 2010.

In many senses, this group of experimental colleges has ushered in a quiet revolution in Chinese higher education, in comparison with more notable moves such as the policy initiative of establishing a modern university system in the 2020 Blueprint and the ongoing practice of granting university charters. Compared with those top-down moves, the experimental colleges are more likely to develop autonomous practices into existing operations, often in an innovative way. Nonetheless, this view doesn’t rule out the future challenges and risks that might stand in their way. Considering the dependent behaviour of Chinese organizations in the past, it will be challenging to keep the current innovative practices (e.g., the PI-led research groups and CP-led teaching platforms in the case of Tianjin University) from sliding back onto the old path (becoming another kind of administrative or bureaucratic mechanism. Even this is not going to happen, it will still be tricky to prevent too much power from following to and concentrating in the hands of a few PIs and CPs on one hand and to ensure a wide participation of the faculty in decision-making on the other.


Qiang Zha is an associate professor at the Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: qzha@edu.yorku.ca. Qiubo Yang is a lecturer at the College of Education, Tianjin University, Tianjin, China.

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