Prospects for Higher Education in China

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10 Prospects for Higher Education in China




Higher education has been a success since reform and opening up began more than two decades ago, but its best period of development did not arrive until the past decade. Indeed, in the past ten years it has drawn world attention for its rapid growth in scale and steady improvement in quality as well as for its trend for diversified growth. Within such a short span of time, it has furnished a platform for better development in the future. To base education development on that solid platform, the government has formulated the principle of consolidating the results, deepening reform, raising the quality, and ensuring sustained development.


China is a poor developing country running the largest education system for the largest population in the world. By tradition, the Chinese value education more than anything else, and the fact that so many only children born under the “one family, one child” policy are coming of age has heightened parents' desire to give their children the best education possible. The disparity between regions in socioeconomic development has confronted the country with the dual tasks of speeding up industrialization and rising to the challenges of a knowledge economy. The way to accomplish both tasks lies largely in education. The contradiction between the snowballing demand for education and shortfalls in quality education resources is the foremost challenge for educators. Added to this is the country's urgent need to convert the pressure of its huge population into abundant human resources. Indeed, the future of higher education is fraught with new challenges.

Economic globalization and a knowledge economy

The dawn of economic globalization, the fast advances in science and technology, the intensifying competition between nations in comprehensive strength, and a burgeoning knowledge economy centered around high-tech and IT revolution, all these spell challenges and opportunities for higher education. It is particularly the case after China's accession to the WTO on December 10, 2001. Higher education needs to adapt to the international economic division of work and provide the country with powerful personnel and intellectual support. In the meantime, it must draw on the international experience in higher education development and further its own growth.

Building an affluent society

In 2002, the government set the goal of turning the country into an all-round affluent society by 2020—to the benefit of the entire citizenry. This goal puts much stress on coordinated economic, social, cultural, and environmental development. In conformity with this goal, education development must follow the strategy of building a modern national education system and a lifelong education system, promote character education in an all-round way, enhance citizens' work, creative, and career-launching abilities, and bring about a learning society where lifelong learning is the rule. It is the job of higher education to achieve this goal by accelerating comprehensive social and human development and turning the pressure of the huge population into advantageous human resources.

New platform for popularizing higher education

The effort to expand and restructure higher education in China made a breakthrough at the turn of the century, furnishing a new platform for growth at an unprecedented speed, ushering in a new stage for popularizing higher education, and hastening a change in the People's concept of education. On this new platform, higher education will undergo essential changes in many aspects, such as patterns of schooling and teaching, administration, quality control, academic standards, teacher-student relations, and the decision-making process. For higher education reform, indeed, the tasks are weighty and the road ahead is long. The arrival of huge numbers of college graduates resulting from the first round of major college enrollment expansions will put a huge pressure on the job market. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the universities' monotonous mode of training has failed to produce the kind of talent that is in great demand in society—a problem that has to be tackled in real earnest by those running the country's higher education system. What the populace needs is quality and competitive education, and what society needs is diversified education. How to raise the quality of higher education will continue to be the order of the day.


History is a good teacher. Lessons of yesterday must be drawn before higher education can grow further today and tomorrow. Policy-makers need to build on legacies and shape new development policies. China's past experience indicates that healthy, balanced, and speedy growth is what is required of higher education and should become the starting point for policies to be drafted for higher education development in the new century.

Development of education gets priority in government strategies

Education is vital to the interests of the entire population and the destiny of the country. Education is huge, extensive, and full of details so important that they cry out for attention. So where should we start? Development. Just as the basic situation of the country determines that to speed up development by grasping opportunities is the way to promote social and human progress, and that effective solutions to many of the problems confronting education can be found only in the course of development.

Development thus becomes the keynote for current government strategies to give priority to education development, rejuvenate the nation through science and education, and make China strong by cultivating talent. The Education Law passed on March 18, 1995 provides, “The increase of education expenditure allocated by the People's governments at various levels shall be at a higher rate than the growth of normal financial revenue so that the average education expenditure per enrolled student increases gradually and a steady increase in teachers' salaries and in average public expenditure per student is ensured.” While ensuring these increases in education funding, the government has taken many steps to expand financial support as the fundamental guarantee for speedy growth of education, higher education included.

Fostering sound development and sustained healthy growth of higher education

Developing higher education does not merely mean expansion. Rather, it calls for an organic integration of scale, quality, structure, and efficiency. Quality is the lifeline, and quantitative growth can get nowhere in the absence of guaranteed quality. A good structure is the prerequisite for an education system geared to social needs; otherwise education cannot play the role it should even if it has developed to a sizeable scale. Funding has all along been a major constraint on higher education development in China; and only by increasing funding through multiple conduits can the efficiency of education be steadily raised. Sustained and healthy development in higher education also calls for properly handling its relationship with social development and with other forms and levels of education. China was able to achieve quantum development in higher education at the turn of the century because it had valued the organic integration of scale, quality, structure, and efficiency. The process of expanding university enrollment itself is one of higher education restructuring, teaching reform, curriculum development, and improvement in education quality and efficiency.

Seeking development through reform and innovation

Reform and innovation generate the driving force behind the healthy progress of education, and pave the way for education's transition from central planning to a market economy.

Higher education in China has gone through a rapid and orderly succession of reforms, ranging from administrative reform, expansion in university enrollment, and transformation of enrollment and employment systems, to reform of universities' internal personnel systems, the outsourcing of on-campus logistics services, and teaching and curricular reforms. However, it is innovation in education in the spirit of keeping up with the times that has enabled these reforms to yield unprecedented results and paved the way and provided systematic guarantees for the speedy, healthy growth of higher education in the past decade. Likewise, the goal to achieve a 23% gross attendance rate in higher education in 2010—no mean feat for a poor country running the world's largest educational system—will never be attained without reform and innovation.

Tightening up education legislation

The emergence of a socialist market economic system has brought major changes to education's public relations and scope of administration. The rule of law has come to stay in higher education administration and the operation of schools of higher learning.

Since the adoption of the reform and opening up policy, the government has answered the public call for tightening up administration over higher education development with legislative action. This has ensured smooth progress in development and reform, straightened out the relationship between the government and schools, and catalyzed the formation of independent decision-making processes and public-oriented operational systems in schools of higher learning. It has also dredged the channels through which the public monitors the workings of education, and improved universities' self-restraining mechanisms. The rule of law is, in the final analysis, the fundamental guarantee for the development of a healthy higher education system.

Tackling problems in higher education development

An underdeveloped country running the world's largest education system is bound to be fraught with difficulties. The more education develops, the more problems will crop up. Only by working unrelentlessly and solving one problem after another, can education be kept on the track of faster and better development. In this regard, People's interests always merit first attention.

Since reform started, higher education in China has been advancing in the midst of solving new problems and overcoming new difficulties. To continue with what is being successfully done in the country's work on education, we must keep on tackling problems and difficulties with a forward-looking mindset, in a pragmatic spirit, and by proceeding in a realistic manner.


Diversity is a precious asset of the world in progress. Diversity makes for a rich and varied world and imparts it with inexhaustible life and vitality.

In the period of elite education, higher education was measured from an elite point of view. The result was that those who made it to elite universities were inevitably adored as the cream of the crop, though they were at best survivors of round after round of rigid tests and selection. Here, higher education's screening aspect was exaggerated to the extreme.

After higher education arrived at the stage of popularization, society's demands for it have become richer and more varied. To meet these demands, higher education must provide diverse forms of schooling and produce a good variety of talent, and universities must develop distinctive programs and augment each other with their respective strengths. To put it simply, this mode of diversification serves to produce competent professionals at all levels, of all varieties, and ranging from the academically erudite to the practically skilled. It is our belief that in the foreseeable future, higher education will inherit its historical legacies and follow a diversified course of reform and development that characterizes its initial stage of popularization.

The higher education system and the modernization drive

Education has an important bearing on the destiny of a country and the interests of the people. Development of higher education is circumscribed subjectively by the country's level in socio-economic development, rate of economic growth, industrial and technological setup, and international environment, and objectively by its own conditions, social psychology resulting from cultural traditions, and the People's understanding of it. In the new century, China is in need of overhauling its industrial setup, upgrading its technological system, restructuring its economic system, and fundamentally changing its mode of economic growth. Higher education must serve these needs in return for support, and seek development by contributing and adapting to socio-economic development and sci-tech and cultural progress. To meet the mounting public expectation for more and better higher education opportunities, educators must better run higher education and be concerned with the employment prospects of college graduates, the schooling opportunities for children from poor families, and all-round human development.

It is essential to build up a flexible, open, and dynamic higher education framework in which different forms of education are connected and mutually augmented, and which meets the demand for building a lifelong learning society. When mapping out development plans and restructuring the education system, we must:

First, give prominence to the cultivation of creative talent in IT, computer networking, software, bioengineering, and other high-tech fields.

Second, speed up the training of senior professionals that are up to WTO standards for finance and banking, law, trade, and management.

Third, bring the development of world-class universities and academic programs and high-tech industrialization under key national development programs.

Fourth, pay due attention to the training of people with applied skills for the three main industries, the tertiary industry in particular.

Raising the quality of teaching

Quality is the lifeline of education. The quality of teaching must be increased in the first place if higher education is to develop any further. Valuing teaching quality has long been a tradition in education in China, and a whole series of effective measures are in place to guarantee it. It is imperative to study and carry forward these measures, so that the Chinese way of higher education can gain an inimitable advantage.

As higher education in this country is poised on a new starting point of popularization, we must explore new guidelines and approaches to raise the quality of teaching. First of all, we must foster a scientifically proven concept of quality and adopt new standards for evaluating teaching quality. We hold nothing against elite education, but we must not slacken our efforts to deliver education to the vast populace either. We should persist in all-round moral, intellectual, physical, and aesthetic development in our students while using the feedback of society and the job market as the barometer for education quality. Secondly, we must revamp old systems and install new ones to raise the quality of teaching. We need a scientifically based and more transparent education quality evaluation system to boost fair competition between schools. We also need incentive mechanisms to motivate teachers in teaching reform with education quality as the bottom line. We need a revamped testing and evaluation system to fire up students' initiative and enthusiasm for learning. Thirdly, we must deepen teaching reform, and promote innovation of education, curricula, syllabi, and teaching. In particular, we must make IT instrumental in raising the quality of teaching, which means to make all the needed hardware available and, more importantly, bring them to the widest possible use in teaching. Fourthly, we must step up the building of faculty and formulate a sound system for the cultivation of talent. We must keep deepening university personnel system reform to make our campuses better places for teachers to concentrate on academic pursuits and for outstanding teachers and researchers to come to the fore. We must carry out the strategy to strengthen our universities by cultivating top-notch talent. We must send more students to study abroad while bringing in outstanding people from overseas.

Developing a versatile higher education system and universities with distinct features

In the first half of the 21st century, the major task for higher education is to meet the People's career-launching needs, but it also needs to improve itself and create world-class universities. In this regard, versatility of education is an irreversible trend, a trend that prompts universities to ponder such questions as “What kind of school should we become?” and “What do we do to achieve what we want to be?” and sets the government wondering: “How should our universities be categorized?” and “What policy should we adopt for universities to develop along categorized lines?” That universities be aware of where they stand and intensify their division of work and cooperation is all that matters for their development and the effective allocation of higher education resources.

It takes a double-faceted effort for our universities to be capable of rendering versatile services to society. On the one hand, we must proceed from the height of fortifying the country's knowledge-refreshing capabilities to develop key universities and fields of study so that they can become a crack force in the country's innovative system and form a platform for large pools of top-notch talent. On the other hand, we must face society's needs and follow the guidance of the job market to vigorously boost post-secondary vocational education, expand higher education's impact on local economies, and meet the national need to develop the manufacturing industry and bring about industrialization. Universities must form development strategies and map out plans to develop their campuses, faculty, and curricula in distinctive ways.

Charting a new course for developing a modern school system

We need systems to ensure success in whatever we do. The transition to a market economy, the reform of the education system, and the expansion of the scale of higher education—these are happening in China on an unprecedented scale in recent years. We must further emancipate our minds to create new systems to make the reform and development a success. Because the final results of higher education manifest themselves through the work of universities and teachers, we must take a sensible attitude toward the building of a modern university system, for it involves universities' relationships with the government and the public and has a lot to do with their internal governance structures.

With regard to the university-government relationship, the government needs to change its functions, tighten up legislation for education, and protect universities' decision-making power according to the law. With regards to universities' public relations, public participation in education and supervision over it must be intensified, the role of intermediary organizations brought into play, and the financing and evaluation systems for higher education improved without letup. With regard to universities' internal governance structures, we must deepen universities' internal administrative reform, motivate the teachers, improve the legal-person system for universities, and build a sound leadership and administrative system, so as to bring about a framework whereby universities can make their own administrative and development decisions while knowing how to restrain themselves in this regard. Under the new situation where private schools develop simultaneously with public ones, we must follow the principle to “warmly encourage, vigorously support, properly guide and supervise according to law” the growth of private schools, while furthering our exploration to ensure healthy and sustained development of privately-run education in the light of national conditions.

China's government, schools, and society are jointly carrying out the Action Plan for Rejuvenating Education 2003–2007 as well as a complete array of steps for raising the quality of higher education. With the indefatigable efforts of higher education workers throughout the country, and with the support and solicitude of all walks of life, higher education is bound for a promising future. As we conclude this book, we would like to pay our lofty respect to our diligent university teachers in China and around the world, and extend our heartfelt thanks to our foreign friends who have been so solicitous about higher education development in our country.