students in the 1940s

Higher education is merit-based and extremely competitive in China. Since free higher education was abolished in 1985, applicants to colleges and universities compete for scholarships based on academic ability.

The growing middle class regards higher education as a pathway to success. The government has built hundreds of universities in recent years to meet soaring demand. Enrollment in 2015 reached 26.2 million students, up from 3.4 million in 1998, with much of the increase in three-year polytechnic programs. [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, July 30, 2016]

Traditionally, higher education has not accessible to many. Admission to the universities is limited by the extremely competitive gaokao university entrance exam. In the 1990s, only 2 percent of the population attended college. The curriculum emphasizes science and technology. In the old days, it was is considered a great honor to attend university and university degree virtually guarantees a comfortable position after graduation. There are technical and vocational schools that train students in agriculture, medicine, mining, and education. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In 2003 China supported 1,552 institutions of higher learning (colleges and universities) and their 725,000 professors and 11 million students. While there is intense competition for admission to China’s colleges and universities among college entrants, Beijing and Tsinghua universities and more than 100 other key universities are the most sought after. The literacy rate in China is 90.9 percent, based on 2002 estimates.[Source: Library of Congress, August 2006]

Higher Education Statistics for China

According to China’s 2020 census and the National Bureau of Statistics of China: There were 218.36 million persons with university education. Compared with 2010, the number of people with university education went up from 8,930 persons to 15,467 persons per 100,000 persons. According to the 2010 census, the proportion of college-educated Chinese went up from 3.61 percent in 2000 to 8.93 percent in 2010. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. In May 2010, that number was more than six million and rising.

Percentage of people 25 to 64 that completed tertiary education (2013): 17 percent (compared to 42 percent in Australia, 44 percent in the U.S. and 7 percent in South Africa). By age group 27 percent of 25-34 year-olds finished tertiary education in China; 15 percent of 35-44 year-olds finished tertiary education; 7 percent of 45-54 year-olds did so; and 2 percent of 55-64 year-olds did. [Source: 2014 OECD data, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Percent of people 25-34 that completed two years of university (or equivalent) or more: 35.8 percent (compared to 47 percent in the U.S. and 60 percent in Japan.[Source: China Statistical Yearbook 2021, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Percent of people 25-34 that completed six years of university (or equivalent) or more: 2.3 (compared to 33 percent in Poland and 1 percent in Mexico. [Source: China Statistical Yearbook 2021, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Female university students (percent of gross, which means the value can be over 100 percent): 64 percent (compared to 68 percent in Germany, 102 percent in the United States and 7 percent in Uzbekistan) [Source: World Bank worldbank.org]

School enrollment, tertiary: 58 percent
School enrollment, tertiary, male: 54 percent
School enrollment, tertiary, female: 64 percent.
Tertiary education, academic staff female: 45 percent.
Pupil-teacher ratio, tertiary: 19 to 1
Educational attainment, at least completed short-cycle tertiary, population 25+: 8.8 percent (cumulative); male: 10 percent (cumulative); female: 7.6 percent (cumulative) [Source: World Bank worldbank.org]

In 2006, roughly 20 percent of the college-age population in China were university or advanced vocational students. The number of students entering university, college and advanced vocational schools increased by more than 500 percent from 4.8 million in 1998 to 24 million in 2006. The majority were concentrating in science and engineering.

In 2003, about 16 percent of the adult population were enrolled in some type of higher education program. In 1998, the higher educational enrollment was 6,075,215 with an educational enrollment rate of 6 percent and 516,400 teachers. The overall enrollment in 1998 was 3,409,000 in the formal higher education sector and 74,967,300 in the nonformal sector. On average, formal higher education institutions admitted about 50 percent of the graduates of general senior secondary schools. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001, China Statistical Yearbook 1999; Library of Congress]

History of Higher Education in China

Higher education reflects the changes in political policies that have occurred in contemporary China. Since 1949 emphasis has continually been placed on political re-education, and in periods of political upheaval, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, ideology has been stressed over professional or technical competence. Under the Four Modernizations goals, first set forth by Zhou Enlai in 1963, higher education was to be the cornerstone for training and research. Because modernization depended on a vastly increased and improved capability to train scientists and engineers for needed breakthroughs, the renewed concern for higher education and academic quality — and the central role that the sciences were expected to play in the Four Modernizations — highlighted the need for scientific research and training. [Source: Library of Congress]

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: The 1952 reorganization of higher education resulted in three types of government-controlled institutions. First, there were a small number of comprehensive universities with departments in the classical arts and science disciplines of the European tradition, as well as six national normal universities that had departments of education, fine arts, and music, which were established with the intention of training academic teachers for the secondary and tertiary level. Second, based on the Marxian concept of polytechnical education and a broad exposure to the applied sciences, several great polytechnical universities such as Tsinghua and Jiaotong were reorganized with the broad range of engineering sciences included in their curricula. Finally, since some sectors of the society need special kinds of knowledge, some colleges were designed to train advanced personnel to meet these special demands. Thus, medical colleges and institutions of finance, economics, political science, and law were created for this purpose. At the head of the system was a new revolutionary university, People's University, which had the task of developing an authoritative Marxist, Leninist, and Maoist canon for the social sciences. By the end of 1953, all private institutions of higher learning had been taken over by the government. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“After 1976 steps were taken to improve educational quality by establishing order and stability, and calling for an end to political contention on university campuses, and expanding university enrollments. This pressure to maintain quality and minimize expenditures led to efforts both to run existing institutions more efficiently and to develop other college and university programs. As a result, labor colleges for training agro-technicians and factory-run colleges for providing technical education for workers were established. In addition, eighty-eight institutions and key universities were provided with special funding, top students and faculty members, and other support, and they recruited the most academically qualified students without regard to family background or political activism. [Source: Library of Congress]

“In the 1980s funding was a major problem because science and technology study and research and study abroad were expensive. Because education was competing with other modernization programs, capital was critically short. Another concern was whether or not the Chinese economy was sufficiently advanced to make efficient use of the highly trained technical personnel it planned to educate. For example, some observers believed that it would be more realistic to train a literate work force of low-level technicians instead of than research scientists. Moreover, it was feared that using an examination to recruit the most able students might advance people who were merely good at taking examinations. Educational reforms also made some people uncomfortable by criticizing the traditional practice of rote memorization and promoting innovative teaching and study methods.

“The prestige associated with higher education caused a demand for it. But many qualified youths were unable to attend colleges and universities because China could not finance enough university places for them. To help meet the demand and to educate a highly trained, specialized work force, China established alternate forms of higher education — such as spare-time, part-time, and radio and television universities.

Impact of the Cultural Revolution on Higher Education

During the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of college students joined Red Guard organizations, effectively closing down the higher education system. In general, when universities reopened in the early 1970s, enrollments were reduced from pre-Cultural Revolution levels, and admission was restricted to individuals who had been recommended by their work unit (danwei) possessed good political credentials, and had distinguished themselves in manual labor. [Source: Library of Congress]

“In the absence of stringent and reasonably objective entrance examinations, political connections became increasingly important in securing the recommendations and political dossiers necessary to qualify for university admission. As a result, the decline in educational quality was profound. Deng Xiaoping reportedly wrote Mao Zedong in 1975 that university graduates were "not even capable of reading a book" in their own fields when they left the university. University faculty and administrators, moreover, were demoralized by what they faced.

“Efforts made in 1975 to improve educational quality were unsuccessful. By 1980 it appeared doubtful that the politically oriented admission criteria had accomplished even the purpose of increasing enrollment of worker and peasant children. Successful candidates for university entrance were usually children of cadres and officials who used personal connections that allowed them to "enter through the back door." Students from officials' families would accept the requisite minimum two year work assignment in the countryside, often in a suburban location that allowed them to remain close to their families. Village cadres, anxious to please the parent-official, gladly recommended these youths for university placement after the labor requirement had been met. The child of an official family was then on his or her way to a university without having academic ability, a record of political activism, or a distinguished work record.

Modernization Goals for Higher Education in China in the 1980s

Students at Cheeloo University
in 1941
In response to the need for scientific training, the Sixth Plenum of the Twelfth National Party Congress Central Committee, held in September 1986, adopted a resolution on the guiding principles for building a socialist society that strongly emphasized the importance of education and science. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Provisional Regulations Concerning the Management of Institutions of Higher Learning, promulgated by the State Council in 1986, initiated vast changes in administration and adjusted educational opportunity, direction, and content. With the increased independence accorded under the education reform, universities and colleges were able to choose their own teaching plans and curricula; to accept projects from or cooperate with other socialist establishments for scientific research and technical development in setting up "combines" involving teaching, scientific research, and production; to suggest appointments and removals of vice presidents and other staff members; to take charge of the distribution of capital construction investment and funds allocated by the state; and to be responsible for the development of international exchanges by using their own funds.

The changes also allowed the universities to accept financial aid from work units and decide how this money was to be used without asking for more money from departments in charge of education. Further, higher education institutions and work units could sign contracts for the training of students. There also was a renewed interest in television, radio, and correspondence classes. Some of the courses, particularly in the college-run factories, were serious, full-time enterprises, with a two-to three-year curriculum.

By 1985 the number of institutions of higher learning had again increased — to slightly more than 1,000. State quotas for university places were set, allowing both for students sponsored by institutions and for those paying their own expenses. This policy was a change from the previous system in which all students were enrolled according to guidelines established in Beijing. All students except those at teachers' colleges, those who had financial difficulties, and those who were to work under adverse conditions after graduation had to pay for their own tuition, accommodations, and miscellaneous expenses.

Higher Education Reforms in China

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “The educational reform document of 1985 dictates that Chinese higher educational institutions are responsible for two main tasks: "training advanced personnel" and "developing science, technology, and culture." Abolishing the excessive government control of past policies, the Ministry of Education promised new autonomy to universities, including freedom to develop "ties with productive units, scientific research institutions," and greater jurisdiction over the institution's curriculum and the use of state funds. As part of the scheme to make China a modernized country in the twenty-first century, a few private institutions have also been established either by social organizations or individuals. All universities are required to abide by the principles set forth in the Chinese Constitution. In 1998, approximately 3,409,000 students were enrolled in 1,020 higher education institutions. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Before the major reform of higher education in China in the 1980s, financing of higher education was characterized by a number of features. First, since the early 1950s when the enrollment and job assignment plans went into effect, the majority of Chinese universities have been funded by both national and provincial governments. Second, the central government was in absolute control of the education budget. Funds were channeled through the Ministry of Finance to various ministries and local governments, with the endorsement of the then Ministry of Education. Third, funds were calculated by "basic number plus development." The "basic number" referred to the student enrollment and staff size as dictated by the national plan. "Development" referred to the incremental changes, again as required by the national plan. Unspent funds were returned to the government. Fourth, the national student-stipend scheme was designed to help students from low-income families. However, the government's overall education budget is not enough and is mostly spent in urban areas. As a result of poor facilities and lack of qualified teachers, students in the countryside have little access to adequate education. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The Outline of Reform (1993) and the Education Law of 1995 stipulated that the two major sources of income that an institution receives are state appropriation and other non-state income. The former is known as yusuannei (budgeted), the latter, yusuanwai (unbudgeted). Budgeted refers to those that are appropriated by the state. Basically, the state provides funding for salaries and the general operation of the institutions. The state also provides partial funding for capital investments. The principle for the management of government appropriation is "one-line budget, retention of surplus." This is to provide incentive for institutions to economize on the resources available. Unbudgeted income is not recorded in government accounts. The five main sources of unbudgeted income are: university-run enterprises; research services and consulting sponsored mainly by individual academic departments; selling teaching services (correspondence courses, refresher courses, adult evening classes, technical training programs); endowment/ donations; and student fees. The proceeds are used to supplement faculty salaries.

Guangdong Experiment

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia: “Until the 1980s college graduates' jobs were guaranteed. Under the old job assignment system, central and provincial authorities drew up the employment plans each year. The Communist Party of China (CPC) organization within each school then assigned their graduates to fill the slots. Since the mid-1990s the system has been in transition from centralized job assignment to allowing market mechanisms to determine job placement. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In early 1988, the Ministry of Education asked higher learning institutions in Guangdong Province to start experimenting on a new package of enrollment, tuition, and job assignment reforms. As a part of the design to institute aspects of the free market into China's centralized socialist system, the aims of this package of reforms are to abolish free higher education, to change the centralized system of enrollment (student enrollment quota to each school and each major from each province), and to abolish job assignment plans. This same set of reforms was extended in the autumn of 1989 to 36 institutions administered directly by the Ministry of Education. The freshmen class in 1997 was the first to pay for their own college education and find jobs for themselves upon graduation through a "two-way selection," meaning both employers and college graduates can decide with whom they want to work without the interfering of the process from the party officials. At provincial and local levels, graduates were almost always expected to return to the place they had come from, though they were sometimes able to move to a slightly better location or situation. But for students who fail to find a work unit within the choices given them by the plan, the school must make the assignment as before. The state employment plan is used to place only a minority of China's college students as necessary for the hard-to-fill occupational quotas.

“The main argument against the free-market approach to job placement was that only when the government can guarantee fair competition in the job market should the job assignment system be abandoned. Without a legal guarantee, the best opportunities are reserved for male students from big cities whose parents have many well-connected friends and relations. Other concerns include that the employers in remote and backward regions do not receive much needed graduates and that there are not enough opportunities waiting each year for all the graduates. The lack of attractive job openings generated a low student morale that became increasingly evident on many campuses. There even arose the feeling that "study is useless."

“The application of the Guangdong experiment in 1988 drastically altered China's highly centralized, socialist education system by introducing tuition payments and abolishing strict enrollment quotas. In the meantime the national student-stipend scheme began to be phased out at the end of the 1980s, and the student loan program was introduced in 1986-1987 by state-financed loans. Among those exempt are students at teacher training and national minorities institutes, who continue to receive a monthly cost-of-living allowance.

“The Guangdong experiment immediately was perceived as changing the egalitarian distribution system and adding to the burdens of poor students. Also, as a result of this reform, "out-of-province" students were reluctant to attend colleges in Guangdong. To address these concerns, the State Education Commission has directed that college students should be divided into two basic enrollment categories. One is zhilingxing jihua (directed or state-assigned plan), while the other is the more flexible zhiddaoxing jihua (guided plan). Students enrolled under the state-guided plan will generally be exempt from paying tuition, and their other expenses will be largely state-subsidized. In return, they must agree to major in one of several unpopular specialties, enrollment quotas for which are typically difficult to fill. They must also accept a state-assigned job in the area for which they have been trained. Other students, under the guided plan, will be responsible for their own tuition and living expenses and for repaying any loans incurred, but they will be free to apply for enrollment in more popular specialties that train for better-paying and more prestigious careers, and they will find employment on their own after graduation. The two functions of the division are allowing students from poorer families to attend college and guaranteeing enrollments in essential specialties that are unpopular. Usually, those fields include teacher training, agriculture, water conservancy, geology, petroleum engineering, and mining. In addition, a small number of dingxiang peiyang students (under contractual arrangements between the school and the locality) who are enrolled from border and mountain regions must return after graduation. They also belong to the category of directed plan.

Evolution of Higher Education Admission in China

Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia:“Since 1949, owing to the different political and economic situations in China, the weighing of admissions criteria constantly shifted, depending on the political climate. Immediately following the Communists' rise to power, admissions criteria focused heavily on the background of a student's family: the "good" (red) classes included the workers, peasants, the former poor, Revolutionary cadres, and revolutionary martyrs; the "bad" (black) consisted of former capitalists, landlords, rich peasants, Nationalists, reactionaries, and criminals. Later, however, because China was in desperate need of professionals and engineers for socialist construction, academic achievement became more important than class background in admissions criteria. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Deng Xiaoping's reforms abolished class background as a factor of consideration altogether. Instead, he instituted the national unified college entrance examinations taken by high school graduates in their last school year. Students are admitted to colleges according to two factors: their scores in the gaokao (unified college entrance examination) and the quotas of enrollment in specific institutions and specific majors. The quotas are assigned to an institution according to a national plan. Students obtain an average score in the gaokao, in a range that permits choices of specialties in institutions. Each major within a college sets up a fenshuxian (score mark), meaning cut-off score. Students whose score is below the cut-off point cannot be accepted by that institution. A prestigious university, usually a key institution, may require a score of 850 out of 900 for entrance. A second-rate institution may require only 600. Economic reforms have motivated institutions to admit zifeisheng (self-supported students) since 1995 in order to increase income. Zifeisheng are candidates below the cut-off point and hence outside the state plan.

“Meanwhile, there is a direct entrance system that allows a tiny number of superior students who achieve outstanding examination results or win prizes in important academic contests to enroll directly in a designated postsecondary institution without sitting for the college entrance examination. Key universities allot several minge (positions) to appropriate key secondary schools, and students to fill them are normally selected by a school administrator and the student's homeroom teacher in consultation with the student and his or her parents. This process is extremely competitive except for students who choose to enter institutions, such as normal colleges and universities, which have trouble attracting highly qualified students.

In the 1990s only about 25 percent of high school graduates were able to pursue higher education directly through public support because of the extremely competitive nature of the college entrance examination. Those students whose examination scores are not high enough or who lack the resources to pursue higher education privately go straight into the workforce without further education. [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Higher Education System in China

Reforms, adopted nationwide in 1986, established a faculty appointment system, which ended the "iron rice bowl" employment system and gave colleges and universities freedom to decide what departments, majors, and numbers of teachers they needed. Teachers in institutions of higher learning were hired on a renewable contract basis, usually for two to four years at a time. The teaching positions available on basis were teaching assistant, lecturer, associate professor, and professor. The system was tested in eight major universities in Beijing and Shanghai before it was instituted nationwide at the end of 1985. [Source: Library of Congress]

Under the 1985 reforms, all graduates were assigned jobs by the state; a central government placement agency told the schools where to send graduates. By 1985 Tsinghua University and a few other universities were experimenting with a system that allowed graduates to accept job offers or to look for their own positions. For example, of 1,900 Tsinghua University graduates in 1985, 1,200 went on to graduate school, 48 looked for their own jobs, and the remainder were assigned jobs by the school after consultation with the students. The college students and postgraduates scheduled to graduate in 1986 were assigned primarily to work in forestry, education, textiles, and the armaments industry. Graduates still were needed in civil engineering, computer science, finance, and English.

Higher Education Administration in China

The Ministry of Education overseas higher education and and accredits tertiary institutions, curriculum and acts as a funder for most of the national public universities and colleges in China. Ting Ni wrote in the World Education Encyclopedia:“In terms of accountability, institutes of higher education in the PRC are divided into four categories: 1) Those under the direct administration of the Ministry of Education; 2) Those under the non-educational central ministries; 3) Those under provincial and other local authorities; and 4) Private institutions [Source: Ting Ni, World Education Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Usually, those under the direct administration of the Ministry of Education are considered as zhongdian daxue (key universities). The concept of key universities was first introduced in 1954. It has never been abandoned by the Chinese government except from 1972 to 1977 when students were not selected by college entrance examinations. Since the economic reforms in the 1980s, Beijing has more than ever before emphasized the importance of key schools. In 2000, eleven universities were designated as key institutions nationwide, following the example of American-style comprehensive universities to become leading higher educational institutions in the world.

“Besides the universities under the SEC, there are some universities under the non-educational central ministries. Those universities tend to specialize in certain areas. For example, the Beijing Institute of Forest is under the Ministry of Forest; the Beijing University of Agriculture is run by the Ministry of Agriculture. Another type of university is managed by provincial and other local education bureaus. The proliferation of provincial and city universities has been encouraged both in order to meet rising social demand and in order to produce the mid-level technical personnel greatly needed in China's modernization drive.

Shortcomings of Higher Education in China

Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times: “The government has built hundreds of universities in recent years to meet soaring demand for higher education, which many families consider a pathway into the growing middle class. Enrollment last year reached 26.2 million students, up from 3.4 million in 1998, with much of the increase in three-year polytechnic programs. [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, July 30, 2016]

“But many universities, mired in bureaucracy and lax academic standards, have struggled. Students say the energetic and demanding teaching they are accustomed to in primary and secondary schools all but disappears when they reach college. “Teachers don’t know how to attract the attention of students,” said Wang Chunwei, 22, an electrical engineering student at Tianjin Chengjian University, not far from Beijing. “Listening to their classes is like listening to someone reading out of a book.”

“Others blame a lack of motivation among students. Chinese children spend years preparing for the gaokao, the all-powerful national exam that determines admission to universities in China. For many students, a few points on the test can mean the difference between a good and a bad university, and a life of wealth or poverty. When students reach college, the pressure vanishes. “You get a degree whether you study or not, so why bother studying?” said Wang Qi, 24, a graduate student in environmental engineering in Beijing.

Researchers at Stanford University found that Chinese students arrived at college with skills far superior to their Russian counterparts. After two years of college, though, the Chinese students showed virtually no improvement while the Russians made substantial progress, though not enough to catch up. The Stanford researchers suspect the poor quality of teaching at many Chinese universities is one of the most important factors in the results. Chinese universities tend to reward professors for achievements in research, not their teaching abilities. In addition, almost all students graduate within four years, according to official statistics, reducing the incentive to work hard. “They don’t really flunk anyone,” said Scott Rozelle, an economist who has studied Chinese education for three decades and a co-author of the study. “The contract is, if you got in here, you get out.”...The weakness in China’s higher education system is especially striking because Chinese leaders are pressing universities to train a new generation of highly skilled workers and produce innovations in science and technology to serve as an antidote to slowing economic growth.

Industrialization of Tertiary Education in China

Wu Zhong wrote in the Asian Times, “As early as 1993, Beijing set a goal to gradually boost government spending on education to the equivalent of 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP). However, the goal still remains on paper, so that the "Outlines of Mid- and Long-term Education Reform and Development Plan", approved by the State Council at a meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao on May 5, 2010, had to set 2012 as the deadline for achieving this goal. [Source: Wu Zhong, China Editor, Asia Times, June 22, 2011]

In the early 1990s, under Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji China began to "industrialize" tertiary education, allowing schools to charge students high tuition fees to help ease the government's financial burden. Regional governments saw this as a new "money tree" and enrolled more and more students by expanding existing schools or establishing new ones at a "big-leap-forward" pace.

Now unaffordable "housing, higher education and medical care" have become major sources of public complaints. The fast expansion of higher education has also caused other problems such as poor teaching quality and academic frauds.

Image Sources: 1) Louis Perrochon; 3) Ohio State University; 4) Nolls China website; ; 5) Bucklin archives; 6) Poco Pico blog ; Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.