Education in China

by Robert Sedgwick, Editor WENR
and Xiao Chen, WES Area Specialist
The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most populous nation, with 1.2 billion people and more than 50 ethnic groups. About 80 percent live in rural areas. The inland and plateau regions are far less developed than the coastal regions, a fact that stymied the government’s goal to universalize primary education by 1990.
The current education system is under control of the Ministry of Education, which carries out educational reforms, sets guidelines and policies and oversees the general development of the educational sector. However, local governments play a crucial role in promoting basic (primary and secondary) education while the central government mainly presides over higher education.
Since 1986, with the promulgation of the Law of Compulsory Education, the government has prioritized universal basic education. As a result, primary schooling has become prevalent throughout much of China, although 5 percent of pupils at this level continue to drop out well before graduation, mostly in rural areas.
By 1985, there were approximately 1 million schools, colleges and universities in China with an enrollment of more than 200 million students. Government expenditure on education that year amounted to 10 percent of the national budget.
Between 1977 and 1987, close to 50,000 students were sent to 76 foreign countries for higher education and research. During that year, for example, Nanjing University sent 880 students abroad for long-term study and recruited 816 foreign students and scholars for programs lasting more than 12 months.
The academic year, which begins in early September and ends in late June, is divided into two semesters, although some schools are currently experimenting with three terms.
Higher education, including room and board, is free of charge for the majority of Chinese students. However, students enrolled in non-degree programs pay their own way to attend college.


Duration: Six years

Curriculum: Chinese, mathematics, music, physical education, English or other foreign language, and (starting in grade five) chemistry, physics, and biology

Leaving certificate: Certificate of graduation


Junior Middle School

Duration: Three years

Curriculum: Chinese, mathematics, foreign language, history, politics, physics, physical education, geography, hygiene, physiology chemistry, and biology

Senior Middle School

I. Academic schools concentrating on the humanities and sciences prepare students for the National Entrance Examination to enter an institution of higher education.
Duration: Three years
Awarding certificate: Certificate of graduation
II. Specialized schools prepare students to enter the work force. They offer courses in allied health, finance and economics, politics and law, agriculture and forestry and physical education to prepare students for the job market.
Duration: Three years
Awarding certificate: Certificate of graduation
III. Technical, vocational and agricultural senior middle schools offer programs in engineering, agriculture, forestry, medicine, finance, textiles, tailoring, telecommunications and electronics. Approximately 40 percent of all senior middle school students attend these institutions.
Duration: Two to four years
Awarding certificate: Certificate of graduation


According to the 2000 edition of Chinese Universities and Colleges (CEAIE), China has 1,034 institutions of higher education, which are officially recognized by the Ministry of Education. These are divided into several categories: comprehensive universities, teacher education schools, specialized universities and technical institutes. Of these, 619 are four-year colleges and universities and 415 are two-year colleges.
In addition, China has an extensive adult-education system. Institutions that come under this category include universities for workers and staff, radio and television universities, correspondence schools, night schools and self-study programs (students enrolled in self-study programs take exams course by course, and when all required courses are passed, university diplomas are awarded).
To enhance the quality of teaching and scientific research, the government selected 96 schools in 1981 as “key universities.” These institutions are considered centers of academic excellence that enjoy superior research facilities and staff. Key universities are under the direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and are obliged to accept students nationally as well as locally. The following 10 institutions are among the key universities:
Beijing University
Tsinghua University
Chinese People’s University
Fu Dan University
Jiaotong University in Shanghai
Jiaotong University in Xian
Nankai University
Nanjing University
Beijing Teacher’s University
Beijing Medical University


Admission to all institutions of higher education (university and nonuniversity) requires a passing score on the highly competitive National Entrance Examination, administered by the Ministry of Education. The exam has been held each July, but starting in 2003, it will be held in early April.


The degree system in China was introduced in 1980 to offer short-term, postsecondary education to meet the needs for the growing work force. Bachelor’s degrees were first awarded in early 1982. During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, academic programs were three years in length and included a period of manual labor. Formal exams were not held during this time and only certificates and diplomas were awarded to graduating students.
Programs and Degrees
Stage 1: The first degree is generally awarded after four years of full-time study, and after five to six years for medicine, dentistry and at some universities for architecture and engineering. Students who successfully complete all undergraduate requirements are awarded two qualifications: the Certificate of Degree and the Certificate of Graduation. Those who do not pass all requirements (e.g. fail courses or the National English Examination) or enroll in non-degree programs only receive the Certificate of Graduation; no degree certificate is awarded.
*NOTE: From 1982 to 1984, graduating students were awarded a separate degree certificate and graduation certificate. However, between 1984 and 1993 both certificates were combined into a single booklet called the “Graduation Certificate.” In 1993, the degree certificate and graduation certificate were separated again.
From 1994 to 2000, all graduation certificates were printed by the Ministry of Education but awarded by individual institutions. Starting inn 2000, universities and colleges began issuing their own qualifications, which must be registered and available for checking on the Web.
A Second Bachelor’s Degree is awarded in a separate discipline and requires an additional two years of full-time study. The second bachelor’s degree can be awarded concurrently with the first, or it may be awarded after the first degree.
Stage 2: Master-level programs are offered by degree-granting universities and institutes and by research institutes. Applicants must possess a bachelor-level degree, be 35 years old or younger and pass an entrance exam. Coursework for this qualification usually takes two to three years to complete. Each student begins work on a thesis during his or her final year. An oral exam is also required after the thesis’ approval. Students who successfully complete both coursework and thesis are awarded a Master’s Degree, while those who only finish the coursework portion of the program receive a Postgraduate Certificate of Graduation.
Stage 3: The Doctoral Degree is offered at degree-granting universities, institutes and research institutes. Generally, candidates must hold a master’s degree and be 40 years of age or younger. Applicants who have not undertaken studies at the master’s level may be required to take an entrance exam. Programs usually take a minimum of three years after the master’s, or four to five years after the bachelor’s degree. Required coursework includes advanced courses in a specialized area and mastery of two foreign languages. The preparation and defense of a dissertation are also required.


This category includes evening schools, radio and television universities, continuing education programs, employee colleges and several recently established private institutions of higher education. In the late 1970s, short-term undergraduate diplomas were introduced to meet the demands of a labor force geared toward economic development. These institutions also offer long-term, nonbachelor-degree programs that last four to five years.
Duration: Two to three years (short-term); four to five years (long-term)
Awarding certificate: Certificate of graduation (diploma)
Programs: management, service industries (fashion design, tourism, advertising), finance and economic law, liberal arts, secretarial training, law, teacher education, farming and forestry, medicine and health care, engineering, and technology


Senior middle school: teachers are trained at a teacher’s university and must complete a four-year bachelor’s degree.
Junior middle school: teachers complete a two- to three-year diploma program at a teacher’s college and sometimes at a four-year teacher’s university.
Primary school: teachers are trained at a two-year college or secondary teacher’s school.
U.S. Grade Equivalents
Useful Sites
Additional Sources
1) Country Education Profiles: China. National Office of Overseas Recognition. Australia, 1991.
2) The International Encyclopedia of Education, Second Edition. Edited by Torsten Husen, T. Neville Postlethwaite. United Kingdom, 1994.
3) Handbook of World Education. Walter Wickremasinghe. United States, 1991.


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Posted in Asia Pacific, Education System Profiles