The Chinese dream for higher education and the dilemma it presents



The number of university students in China, including those in part-time higher adult education, expanding from 12.3m students in 2000 to 34.6m in 2013. China has become an exceptional example of increasing access for students to higher education – but this expansion has also been accompanied by some unexpected and even negative consequences.

The annual number of graduates is expected to reach 7.27m in 2014 and the challenge is to find them appropriate jobs, especially as over-education – where the supply of graduates exceeds labour market demand – is becoming serious. An uneven distribution of higher education by geographic region and social group has also resulted in growing inequality of opportunity, creating barriers for students from inland regions and from rural families, especially those applying to key national universities.

Such achievements and problems were considered in the 2012 Ministry of Education’s Guidance and Measures document on quality, structural adjustment and educational equality. This policy change, signalled by China’s president, Jing Xiping, has offered an opportunity to rethink the relationship between social justice and Chinese higher education.

Gradual reform

The unevenness of China’s economic and social development over the past three decades has created a stratified society which has had a major impact on educational inequality, especially in higher education. Nevertheless, relatively little attention has been paid to its role in achieving social justice and maintaining an harmonious society.

The renewal of higher education was a key part of Deng Xiaoping’s development strategy, begun in 1978, to open China to the world. State control was maintained and the universities continued to serve the policy requirements of the Communist Party.

Yet gradual adjustments were made. A high value was placed on scientific knowledge, innovation and the application of research, compared with traditional Chinese knowledge. University curricular were de-politicised and direct political control over student recruitment and behaviour was relaxed – although each institution continued to be monitored by its internal CCP organisation.

International higher education was opened up to academic exchange and a state-funded programme began through a China Scholarship Council for visiting Chinese scholars abroad. Tuition fees were introduced in the late 1980s have grown steadily since from 200 yuan RMB in 1989 to 5,000 yuan RMB in 2000 (US$32 to US$808 in today’s money). Fees now range from 13000 yuan RMB to 23,500 ($2,000 – $4,000). Permission was also given for universities to recruit some students outside the national plan, which had set the total number of students each university could admit.

In contrast with the Maoist era, the most significant change has been that universities are now essentially centres for the production of elites in the manner of similar institutions in capitalist economies. The possession of university credentials is now emphasised as a key criterion for recruitment or promotion in both the public sector and in the emerging private sector.

In search of excellence

In the late 1990s, China’s higher education system entered a new era, with the introduction of a new set of policies. This began with the state’s decision in 1995 to develop so-called world-class universities through its 211 projects involving the top 100 universities and, since 1998, through its 985 projects involving the top 40 universities.

These led to strict ranking of higher education institutions with privileged state financial support. This was followed by the devolution of responsibility for around 300 other universities to provincial governments. It was a transition from a national plan for the recruitment, training and employment of graduates for Chinese state socialism to a system to create a supply of graduate talent to feed the changing labour markets.

The most significant change has been a funding system which has led to both an expansion of public universities and the emergence of private higher education.

Redressing stratification

These changes have taken place in the context of an economic growth which has created a highly stratified society. In recognition of this, compensatory initiatives have been introduced by the current leadership of party and state. Policy programmes have aimed to increase the number of disadvantaged students accessing key universities, while state funds have been allocated to improve teaching conditions in higher education in the disadvantaged west of China.

Students from migrant workers\’ families have been allowed to take the national university entrance examination at their place of residence rather than at their place of family origin. There has also been improved state financial support for students from poor families alongside promotion of entrepreneurship to enhance employment prospects. It remains to be seen how effective such policies will be in reducing educational inequality, given that they are essentially limited administrative measures.

The dilemma faced by Chinese higher education officials is how to build both world-class universities and a system that meets the needs of the Chinese people. It seems that fundamental problems have yet to be analysed using empirical research – and they will need to be if the state is to be sure it its policies are working.