20080311-Perrechon Nanjing University.jpg
Nanjing University
In 2021, there were 3,012 colleges and universities, with over 40 million students enrolled them, in mainland China. An average of 8 million Chinese students graduated from university a year between from 2016 to 2020. China has the second-highest number of top universities in the world and the most in Asia as well as the highest number of scientific publications. More than 2,500 universities in China are included in the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities. [Source: Wikipedia]

As of 2000, there were 1,841 institutions of higher learning. These include universities and four-year non-vocational colleges. Between 1997 and 2000, 68 new private universities and colleges opened.

According to the 2010 census, the proportion of college-educated Chinese went up from 3.61 percent in 2000 to 8.93 percent. In 1998, when then president Jiang Zemin 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. Still, for many Chinese families a university education is an unattainable, impossibly expensive dream. Third tier universities are mostly private ones that are expensive but easy to get into.

Websites and Sources: Center on Chinese Education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College ; China Today on Chinese Schools ; China Education and Research Network (Chinese Government Site) ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) ; on Higher Education ; China Today Info on Chinese Universities and Colleges ; Wikipedia article on Higher Education in China Wikipedia

Structure of Chinese Universities

Most Chinese universities were set up in accordance with the Soviet model to produce individuals that serve the state. For a long time Tuition was paid for by the state. The state also assigned majors and decided the jobs the students would receive after they graduated. Students mostly took classes only in their field and in Communist ideology. The system produced lots of engineers.

Steven Kuo wrote in The Guardian, “Chinese universities are modeled after civil services where most of those who are in charge are party members, not scholars. The chancellor of a top national university enjoys the equivalent ranking of a national government minister, and provincial universities' chancellors, provincial government ministers. Instead of being isolated ivory towers of academic research where quality research is the ultimate criterion for recognition, Chinese universities are places of hierarchy, patrimony, control and power struggles where personal networks outweigh academic ability.”

“The roots of the dismal state of higher learning in China today can be found in the Cultural Revolution. The current generation of professors began their careers just after a generation of intelligentsia, many of whom learned in both Chinese and western scholarship, were purged as counter-revolutionaries. The current generation have navigated their academic careers with the utmost care and diffidence, with little mentoring from previous generations and isolated from critical scholarly communities beyond China.”

In 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao said that Chinese universities need to transform and be converted from a government civil service to centers of research was met with strong resistance from entrenched interests. Speaking as representatives of the National People's congress and as committee members of the Chinese people's political consultative committee, university chancellors argued that dissociating universities from government structures will lessen the value and effectiveness of Chinese education.”

Growth of Chinese Universities

In the 1990s, the Chinese government began pouring a lot of money into Chinese universities in an effort to bring them up to world class status and create enough openings for a boom in university age students. Schools were merged, new facilities and dormitories were built. And in process some of the money disappeared into the vacuum of development and construction corruption.These days land is still being cleared to make way for new school facilities.

China had more than 1,900 institutions of higher learning in 2010, nearly double the number in 2000. Close to 19 million students were enrolled in 2010, a sixfold jump in one decade. The number of faculty has more than quadrupled. The number of students enrolled in Chinese universities increased twentyfold between 1978 and 2009. from roughly 30,000 in 1978, when universities opened again after the Cultural Revolution, and 600,000 in 2009. Between 2000 and 2009 higher-education enrollment more than tripled. Today, China awards more college degrees than the United States and India combined. Annual awards of doctoral degrees rose sevenfold between 1996 and 2006.

Since China began opening up in the 1980s a number of private, profit-making universities have opened up. Most of the students are young people who failed to get into established universities. The universities often charge high fees and deliver a education of dubious quality. In a speech on education former premier Zhu, Rongji said in 2011: "I don't advocate for building up so many universities. To do what? When I entered Tsinghua in 1947, there were only 2,000 students. Now the number is in the tens of thousands. It is OK for Tsinghua to have tens of thousands of students. But now even Jilin University has 75,000 students. There are now a lot of academic frauds, even professors fabricate, plagiarize from papers by others. What would happen it this continues? ... You'd better concentrate efforts to do a good job in promoting compulsory education."

A number of new universities have opened up. Among them is SIAS International University, founded by Southern California hotel entrepreneur Shawn Chen in Xinzheng in Henan Province. Since it was founded in 1998 with less than $2 million, it has grown from 250 students to 16,000 students, many of whom say the chose SIAS because of the American-style campus life, which includes clubs and cheerleaders. As of 2007 SIAS had 50 buildings, including a a Roman amphitheater, French and Italian restaurants, an administrative building with domed facade and a swimming stadium on 400 acres — twice the size of the campus of the University pf Southern California. Among is 700 member faculty are 100 foreign instructors, who are paid about $500 a month and receive free housing and plane tickets from their home country, mostly the United States.

Top Chinese Universities


China is establishing world class universities and research centers. Top universities in China tend to cater to the elite and favor student in their homes cities, often requiring rural students to outperform urban counterparts on entrance exams to get in. A degree at a top university is regarded as a ticket to a better life. The Double First-Class Universities are considered to be the most elite institutions of Chinese tertiary education, representing the top 5 percent of the approximately 3,000 universities and colleges in Mainland China (.[Source: Wikipedia]

Among the largest, oldest and most prestigious institutions in China are Peking (Beijing) University and Tsinghua University, both in Beijing; Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in Shanghai; Sun Yat-sen University (formerly Zhongshan University), in Guangzhou; Nanjing University Nanjing and; Nankai University and Tianjin University, in Tianjin. After the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937, Peking University, Tsinghua University and Nankai University in Tianjin merged. The schools transferred their students and teachers to the southwestern city of Kunming to form Southwestern Associated National University. After the Communists took over they became separate once again.

The C9 League is an alliance of nine universities in China, initiated by the Chinese Central Government to promote the development and reputation of higher education in China in 2009. Regarded as China’s Ivy League, C9 League members account for 3 percent of the country's researchers, but receive 10 percent of national research expenditures. The members are 1) Fudan University, Shanghai; 2) Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, Heilongjiang province; 3) Nanjing University, Nanjing, Jiangsu province; 4) Peking University, Beijing; 5) Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai; 6) Tsinghua University, Beijing; 7) University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, Anhui province; 8) Xi'an Jiaotong University, Xi'an, Shaanxi province; 9) Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. [Source: Wikipedia]

There appears to be a large and growing urban bias at top Chinese universities. Pan Wei, a “New Left” thinker with a Ph.D. from Berkeley, said that at Beida there is a declining number of students from the countryside. According to him, 70 percent of PKU’s students were from rural areas in the 1950s; 60-70 percent in the 60s. Today, the number is less than 1 percent. Alec Ash, who wrote a blog about the intellectual life of young Chinese elites, said, “As I can’t check that figure — Chinese universities are secretive about figures which would be public in Britain — but the trend itself is certainly incontestable.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker website July 29, 2010]

Rankings of Chinese Universities

As of 2020, China had the world's second-highest number of top universities in several most cited international rankings including the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), the QS World University Rankings and U.S. News & World Report Best Global University Ranking. [Source: Wikipedia] Chinese universities began achieving relatively high rankings in global higher education surveys and rankings in early 2010s. In the 2012 Global Employability Survey, released by the International Herald Tribune, Peking University was ranked 11th compared to 109th in 2011. In 2012, four mainland Chinese universities made the top 100, as opposed to only two in 2011. Shanghai Jiao Tong University went from 139th to 44th. [Source: Christopher F. Schuetze, New York Times, October 24, 2012]

In a 2010 ranking of universities by the Times Higher Education Magazine, China had six universities in the top 200, more than Japan which had five, and the highest ranking in Asia. Peking University was the highest ranked Chinese university, placing 37th overall. In the U.S. News and World Report ranking of universities in Asia the University of Hong Kong ranked third, Peking University was 8th and Tsinghua University was 10th. In the Quacquarelli Symonds ranking of universities in Asia the University of Hong Kong was first, the Chinese University of Hong Kong was second.

In 2016, universities from mainland China broke into a global top 100 index of the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the independent Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. Tsinghua University was 58th; Peking University was 71st place. Tsinghua and Peking Universities now top the world in PhDs obtained from U.S. universities. [Source: The Guardian, August 15, 2016]

The QS World University Rankings by Subject, released in 2016, showed that among 36 academic disciplines evaluated, seven Chinese universities made the global top 50. Ben Sowter, head of research, told Forbes the success of China’s universities fits into a wider shift in the global balance of power, with Asian institutions emerging as genuine competitors to the U.S. and U.K., especially in the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “What manifests itself as a very clear trend, however, is that institutions in the region are much more strongly represented than last year, with 70 additional places across the subjects occupied by universities from China and Hong Kong,” Sowter said.“This perhaps indicates a deepening of quality across the sector in mainland China – in other words a growing capacity to offer a world class education at a world class university to more students in more subjects.” [Source: Johan Nylander, Forbes, April 28, 2015]

According to Forbes: In total, 2,186 institutions across the globe were ranked in at least one subject. Mainland China was the fifth most represented country in the global rankings, and the top nation in Asia, followed by Japan. Peking University led the pack of mainland schools within the top 50 range, followed by Tsinghua University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

China’s Top-Ranked Universities in Global Rankings

US News Best Global Universities Ranking (opinion based) (Institution, Global ranking in 2022) Tsinghua University — 26
Peking University — 45
Shanghai Jiao Tong University — 105
University of Science and Technology of China — 110
Zhejiang University — 115
Nanjing University — 135
Fudan University — 141
Sun Yat Sen University — 159
University of Chinese Academy of Sciences — 159
Huazhong University of Science and Technology — 176
Hunan University — 195
Harbin Institute of Technology — 203
Wuhan University — 209
Tongji University — 224
Central South University — 236
South China University of Technology — 250
Southeast University — 255
Xi'an Jiaotong University — 255
Beihang University — 266
University of Electronic Science and Technology of China — 272
Opinion-based rankings use the weighted averages of opinions gathered in surveys.
[Source: Wikipedia

U.S. News and World Report top global universities in China in 2014 (Country Rank, Global Rank and Global Score): 1) Peking University, Beijing, 39, 60.3; 2) Tsinghua University, Beijing, 67, 55.8 Global Score; 3) Fudan University, Shanghai, 108, 52.9 Global Score; 4) Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, 128, 51.5; 5) University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, Anhui, 143, 51.3; 6) Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, 148, 47.7; 7) Nanjing University, Nanjing, 185, 44.7; 8)Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, 220, 39.0;9) Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, 294, 38.8 Global Score; 10) Beijing Normal University, Beijing, 298. [Source: U.S. News & World Report, October, 2014]

QS World University Rankings (opinion based) (Institution, Global ranking in 2021 2022)
Tsinghua University — 15 — 17
Peking University — 23 — 18
Fudan University — 34 — 31
Zhejiang University — 53 — 45
Shanghai Jiao Tong University — 47 — tied for 50
University of Science and Technology of China — 93 — 94
Nanjing University — 124 — 131
Tongji University — 256 — 211
Wuhan University — 246 — 225
Harbin Institute of Technology — 260 — tied for 236
Sun Yat Sen University — 263 — 260
Beijing Normal University — 279 — tied for 270
Southern University of Science and Technology — 323 — tied for 275
Xi'an Jiaotong University — 303 — tied for 290
Huazhong University of Science and Technology — 396 — tied for 334
Tianjin University — 387 — tied for 334
Nankai University — 377 — tied for 358
Beijing Institute of Technology — 392 — tied for 373
Beihang University — 449 — tied for 383
Shandong University — 485 — tied for 403
Opinion-based rankings use the weighted averages of opinions gathered in surveys.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings (opinion based) (Institution, Global ranking in 2021 and 2022) Tsinghua University — 20 — tied for 16
Peking University — 23 — tied for 16
Fudan University — 70 — 60
Zhejiang University — 94 — 75
Shanghai Jiao Tong University — 100 — 84
University of Science and Technology of China — 87 — tied for 88
Nanjing University — 111 — tied for 105
Wuhan University — 301-350 — 157
Southern University of Science and Technology — 251-300 — tied for 162
Huazhong University of Science and Technology — 301-350 — 181
Sun Yat Sen University — 251-300 — 251-300
Beijing Normal University — 301-350 — 251-300
Nankai University — 351-400 — 301-350
Tongji University — 401-500 — 301-350
East China Normal University — 351-400 — 301-350
Central South University — 351-400 — 301-350
Shenzhen University — 401-500 — 351-400
Hunan University — 401-500 — 401-500
Xi'an Jiaotong University — 401-500 — 401-500
Tianjin University — 401-500 — 401-500
Opinion-based rankings use the weighted averages of opinions gathered in surveys.

Shanghai Ranking's Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) (Institution, Global ranking in 2021 and 2022)
Tsinghua University — 29 — 28
Peking University — 49 — 45
Zhejiang University — 58 — 52
Shanghai Jiao Tong University — 63 — 59
University of Science and Technology of China — 73 — 63
Fudan University — 100 — 77
Sun Yat Sen University — 101-150 — 89
Nanjing University — 101-150 — 101-150
Xi'an Jiaotong University — 101-150 — 101-150
Huazhong University of Science and Technology — 101-150 — 101-150
Harbin Institute of Technology — 101-150 — 151-200
Wuhan University — 151-200 — 151-200
Tianjin University — 151-200 — 151-200
Tongji University — 201-300 — 151-200
Shandong University — 151-200 — 151-200
Sichuan University — 151-200 — 151-200
Jilin University — 151-200 — 151-200
Southeast University — 101-150 — 151-200
Northwestern Polytechnical University — 201-300 — 151-200
Beijing Institute of Technology — 201-300 — 151-200

University Ranking By Academic Performance (URAP) (Institution, Global ranking in 2020 and 2021)
Tsinghua University — 12
Shanghai Jiao Tong University — 18
Zhejiang University — 20
Peking University — 21
Sun Yat-sen University — 48
Huazhong University of Science and Technology — 49
Fudan University — 54
University of Science and Technology of China — 63
Central South University — 68
Xi'an Jiaotong University — 70
Nanjing University — 73
Harbin Institute of Technology — 74
Wuhan University — 85
Sichuan University — 86
Shandong University — 96
Jilin University — 106
Tianjin University — 109

Peking University

Peking University (Beijing University) is known in China as Beijing Daxue, or Beida for short. It was established and run by Americans in 1889 and was located near the Forbidden City in Jingshan Park until it was moved to its present location in the far northwest part of the city in 1953. Its students were at the forefront of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Beida is underfunded and short on supplies. Sometimes students have to take exams standing up because there are not enough chairs. Many students share a four-square-meter dormitory room with five others.

Peking University is known for its outstanding academic resources. The Peking University website says: Founded as the Imperial University of Peking in 1898, Peking University was China’s first national comprehensive university and the supreme education authority at the time. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it has developed into a comprehensive university with fundamental education and research in both humanities and science. The reform and opening-up of China in 1978 has ushered in a new era for the University unseen in history. And its merger with Beijing Medical University in 2000 has geared itself up for all-round and vibrant growth in such fields as science, engineering, medicine, agriculture, humanities and social sciences. Supported by the “211 Project” and the “985 Project”, the University has made remarkable achievements, such as optimizing disciplines, cultivating talents, recruiting high-caliber teachers, as well as teaching and scientific research, which paves the way for a world-class university.

Peking University is a cradle of top-quality and creative students, a major source of cutting-edge science and knowledge innovation, and a key bridge for international exchange. It has six faculties, namely Humanities, Social Sciences, Economics and Management, Science, Information Technology and Engineering, as well as Health Science. It consists of 55 schools and departments, 60 research entities, and ten affiliated hospitals. There are more than 48,600 students (including nearly 2,500 international students) as well as over 12,600 faculty and staff members including over 123 academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Peking University has a similar standing to Oxford or Cambridge but, unlike those institutions, has a reformist reputation. Its students played a crucial role in the 4 May movement of 1919 and the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations. In 1919, Peking University students sparked the May 4 Movement after converging on Tiananmen Square in central Beijing to protest the government's weakness against foreign imperialism after the Treaty of Versailles ceded parts of China to Japan. In 1989, Peking University students returned to Tiananman Square in large numbers demanding democracy, transparency, and rule of law — protests that led to the brutal Tiananman Square crackdown.

Peking University's beautiful 700-acre campus in northwest Beijing and is home to more than 200 official extracurricular organizations, such as singing ensembles, theater troupes and sports teams. The campus,also known as Yan Garden, has been unofficially dubbed by many as the mini-Summer Palace for its great scenery near the Weiming Lake area, which was once part of a Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) royal garden. [Source: Lu Na,, March 31, 2011]

Tsinghua University

Tsinghua is China's leading technical university. Regarded as China’s MIT, it is considered by many to be the best university in China. Covering 356 hectares, it is also one of the largest universities in China. Many well-known Chinese graduated from or worked at Tsinghua, including Nobel Laureates Tsung-Dao Lee and Yang Zhenning, China's president from 2002 until 2012, Hu Jintao, and writer Wen Yiduo. Located on the site of a Qing Dynasty royal garden, the campus retains Chinese-style landscaping and buildings, as well as Western-style buildings that reflect the American influence in its history. The campus was named one of the most beautiful in the world by Forbes in 2010. [Source: Lu Na,, March 31, 2011]

Tsinghua University was established in Beijing in 1911, the same year the Qing Dynasty fell, marking the end of Imperial China and the beginning of Republican Period. Louisa Chiang and Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Tsinghua was founded in Beijing as a preparatory school for Chinese students who were headed for the United States on the Boxer Indemnity Scholarships that were established with funds that China’s last dynasty, the Qing, was obliged to pay to the US as reparations for American losses in the Boxer uprising of 1899–1901. In 1924, the year before Tsinghua instituted its four-year college curriculum, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore visited the campus, where, he left students with deep impressions of humanistic values. “Do not forget your vocation,” he said, and avoid “the lure of profit.” [Source: Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, New York Review of Books, June 7, 2018]

“The university’s president from 1931 to 1948, Mei Yiqi, was a Boxer Indemnity scholar in 1909 who studied electrical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and became a Christian in 1912. After the war, back in Beijing and under heavy Soviet influence in the 1950s, Tsinghua’s purpose became the training of engineers, and it did this until 1966, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution shut China’s universities down. Tsinghua reopened in 1978, after which the humanities made a modest comeback. But science and technology have still predominated.

Tsinghua, marked its hundredth anniversary in 2011,and commissioned a fiction film, directed by Li Fangfang, to celebrate its history. Called in English Forever Young, it is technically awkward, even amateurish, but it tells the important story of how war and revolution ravaged Tsinghua’s humanistic beginnings, and it pleads for the restoration of those values today. Completed in 2012, the film was blocked by censors until January 2018, but when it was released it quickly became a box-office hit.

Tsinghua-Peking University Rivalry for China's Best Students

Traditionally, the competition between Tsinghua and Peking for the China’s best students has been very fierce to say the least. A majority of students with excellent gaokao scores choose to attend one of the two schools. In 2015 Tsinghua freshman class numbered 3,372 and the Peking class 3,665. Yifu Dong, Yifu Dong wrote for the New York Times: For Tsinghua and Peking, the goal is to recruit as many zhuangyuan, the very top gaokao scorers from each province, as possible and to set the cutoff scores, below which applicants won’t be considered, as high as possible. According to a widely reposted commentary on Haiwai Net, the website of the overseas edition of the newspaper People’s Daily, the more top scorers a university lures and the higher the cutoff scores it sets in each province, the more prestige it gains.[Source:Yifu Dong, Sinosphere, New York Times, June 30, 2015]

“As for the effect of recruiting the top scorers, Shangguan Caiwei, the author of the commentary, offers an obvious example: “If the news says, ‘This year, the zhuangyuan from every province are attending Peking University,’ then everyone will believe that Peking University is the best university in the country. The same happens if it’s Tsinghua.”

“Ms. Shangguan also lends credence to several seemingly apocryphal stories online: It is true, she writes, that a few Tsinghua and Peking recruiters traded blows and inflicted injuries on one another and that Tsinghua invited new recruits to campus and cut off their contact to the outside world to make sure that the students selected Tsinghua. It is also true, she writes, that during the final three hours for applications to be accepted, Tsinghua recruiters pretending to be students called all the phones at Peking University’s recruitment center in an unnamed province so that the lines were busy when real students tried to get through.

“In another showdown between Tsinghua and Peking, covered in the Southern Metropolis Daily as well as on the CCTV program “News 1+1”, a high-scoring Guangdong student named Liu Junyan was bombarded by phone calls from both Tsinghua and Peking for three straight days. The newspaper reported that after Mr. Liu chose to enroll at Peking University Guanghua School of Management, the Tsinghua recruiter told him: “The business management program in Peking University is not very good. Tsinghua’s business management is No. 1.”

“Mr. Liu said: “The fight over new recruits is understandable because the recruiters are under so much pressure from the schools that they resort to inappropriate ways to attract students. The recruiters should strengthen their self-discipline, and the authorities should ban the universities from smearing one another. Let rationality rule the recruiting process, and let the students enter their dream schools.”

Nanjing University Accused of Using Sex to Promote the School

In 2021, Nanjing University was criticized for published photos online of beautiful women holding signs with sexually suggestive text. The school removed the photos after an immediate backlash online. The South China Morning Post reported: Nanjing University posted the advertisement on Weibo, the first day of the gaokao exams.The advertisement featured six photos of current students holding up signs in front of different parts of the campus. Two of the photos attracted the most criticism. One included a pretty woman holding up a sign that read, “Do you want to live at the library with me, from morning till night?” and the other said, “Do you want me to become part of your youth?” [Source: Phoebe Zhang, South China Morning Post, June 9, 2021]

“The problem with this photo is that it treats women as if they should be someone’s belonging. These women made it to NJU, but now they are ‘part of someone else’s youth’? That is ridiculous,” one comment said on Weibo. Another wrote: “As a top university, you should recruit based on your resources and quality of your academics, instead of using hot guys and pretty women to lure people.” Some people, however, questioned whether the criticism was an overreaction, saying the advertisement did not need to result in a deep conversation about gender equality. “One commenter said: “There is no need to be all serious in the ads, they can surely write this way to attract young people. No need to be picky,” one said.

“In 2013, renowned Renmin University of China, colloquially called “Renda”, became one of the first schools in the internet era to use pretty women as an advertisement when it posted a woman’s graduation photo on its main website. Online, people flooded the website to see “Renda Goddess” and crashed the university’s server.

Image Sources: 1) Louis Perrochon ; 2, 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

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