International Rankings and Chinese Higher Education Reform


China’s system of higher education has its modern-day roots in reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping soon after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Characterized by a reform agenda known as the Four Modernizations, Deng’s policies began a process that current higher education policymakers hope will end with the establishment of a network of world-class universities able to compete for the best minds not only in China but also across the globe.

Deng’s desire was to see China “catch up” with the rest of the world and to engage the global community as a socialist market economy through advancements in four broad sectors: agriculture, industry, science and technology and the military. Central to this catch-up policy was the development of a higher education infrastructure capable of meeting the demanding research and human resource needs of the new Chinese economy. Since Deng’s retirement from the political scene in 1992, higher education policies enacted by third- and fourth-generation leaders have not lost sight of this vision; indeed, they are a continuation along a similar path.

The complex challenges of competing in the global economy, especially after China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, have had a dramatic impact on higher education in China. Two broad goals characterize the reform agendas of the 1990s: rapidly increase gross enrollment rates and improve the quantity and quality of China’s research output, especially in technical and scientific fields, by building a network of world-class universities. Central to the latter goal are two policies that have come to be known as Project 211 and Project 985. The goal of increasing enrollments has been tackled in part through the liberalization of regulations governing private education, alongside the expansion of public provision.

Before looking at these reforms in greater detail, a brief exploration of post-Mao reforms will help put current policies in perspective.

A (Very) Brief Post-Mao History of Higher Education Reform

Deng inherited from Mao a higher education system that had, for all intents and purposes, ground to a halt during the tumultuous events of the decadelong Cultural Revolution. For higher education officials charged with rebuilding the nation’s tertiary education infrastructure, there was an evident need to refocus university studies from political indoctrination to the more practical pursuits of professional and academic training. After Deng’s 1979 declaration that his country must catch up with the West, university studies were broadened significantly and new areas of study were rapidly introduced at campuses across the country. After the broadening of subject offerings through the 1980s, attention refocused on the advancement of research and development in science and technology, disciplines that now drive the Chinese economy and continue to be the focus of central planners.

Opening the Private Sector, Tripling Enrollments 

Along with their desire to build a higher education infrastructure responsive to the needs of a vibrant Chinese economy, government officials under Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao realized they needed to open up university places to more than the relatively small elite for whom studies traditionally were reserved. During the late 1990s, a policy was introduced to increase this rate dramatically, and in 1998, the government set a target of enrolling 15 percent of the college-age population at some kind of tertiary institution by 2010. This goal was met five years early.

Between 1998 and 2005, college enrollment tripled to 20 million; the government currently estimates that at least 20 percent of high school graduates will be pursuing some form of tertiary education by 2010. This prediction comes despite a 2005 government announcement calling for a slowdown in the growth of enrollments amid concerns that the job market is not able to absorb the huge numbers graduating from tertiary studies. Many political commentators believe the current high unemployment rate among university graduates may lead to protests and instability reminiscent of the student-led protests of 1989, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

An estimated 4.13 million new university graduates will enter the job market this summer, an increase of 20 percent on last year. According to a recent government report 60 percent will have trouble finding a job.

In addition to building new public institutions and expanding capacity at existing institutions, much of the enrollment growth over the last decade resulted from the relaxation of the laws governing private education. Unable to meet the overwhelming demand for higher education through public provision, the government has been liberalizing opportunities for private providers since the 1980s. In 2002, the government passed the Law for the Promotion of Private Education, which outlines and regulates government support for private universities and other institutions of higher education.

Since 1999, public universities have been permitted to establish affiliated — or second-tier — for-profit colleges offering recognized degree programs with less stringent entry requirements. Today, there are more than 1,300 private tertiary institutions operating in China, of which more than 300 are affiliated with public universities.

Using Rankings to Achieve International Respect and Prestige: the World-Class University

Alongside a tremendous growth in undergraduate opportunities, the government has stressed the importance of developing world-class research programs at internationally competitive universities. Two government programs and one set of benchmarks provide valuable insights into how the Chinese define the concept of a world-class university and the methods they believe best serve the pursuit of that status.

In August, the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiaotong University released its fourth annual Academic Ranking of World Universities, a ranking that originally was produced as a benchmark for gauging the international quality of China’s academic research output. Similar to previous years, just nine Chinese universities cracked the ranking’s top 500, a situation the Chinese government is keen to remedy over time through a series of priority funding programs.

If one examines the methodology by which the Shanghai rankers measure academic quality and assumes the government shares these views, then it seems safe to say the current Chinese definition of academic quality lies in the ability of university faculty and researchers to produce and publish research, especially in the more technical and scientific fields. Fully 90 percent of the criteria used to measure academic quality are based on research output, peer citation and high-level recognition (Nobel prizes, Fields medals, etc.), particularly in the sciences, mathematics and related fields.

Although it originally was intended for a domestic audience, the Shanghai ranking has received a great deal of attention, much of it negative from academics, university officials and journalists around the world. The thrust of the criticism has been aimed at the ranking’s over-emphasis on scientific and technological research. However, because the ranking is a benchmark for gauging progress in relation to international peers, it makes sense the Chinese government is paying special attention to the disciplines that are high on its priority list and to which it is awarding priority funding.

Project 211

With the goal of developing a network of comprehensive research universities able to produce world-class research and compete for the world’s brightest minds, the Chinese government initiated a priority-funding policy that channels extra money to the nation’s top universities. In addition, specialist institutions were encouraged to merge to create a number of large, comprehensive universities focusing on both teaching and research.

First announced in 1993 by the government of then President Jiang Zemin and implemented in 1995, Project 211 gave existing universities and newly merged institutions the opportunity to bid for nearly US$20 billion in priority government funding. In all, approximately 100 universities have been approved to receive additional funding to improve facilities and curriculums within some or all of their academic departments. It is hoped this network of institutions will train the next generation of high-level professional manpower in the sectors key to China’s future social and economic development. The government is developing through the network 80 key academic disciplinary areas and 602 specializations that will not only train China’s future cadre of decision-makers and academic leaders, but also serve as a model for other universities and academic departments around the country. Particular emphasis has been placed on programs that will positively affect the country’s social and economic development, scientific and technological advancement and national defense system.

Of the 602 specializations identified by the government for 211 funding, 255 (42%) are in engineering and technological sciences, 89 (15%) in the exact (fundamental) sciences, 66 (11%) in health and medicine, 62 (10%) in the humanities, 57 (10%) in law and economics, 42 (7%) in environmental sciences and 31 (5%) in agricultural sciences.

Other key measures associated with the 211 Project include the commercialization of research findings, reform of university administration and management and strengthening of international cooperation and exchanges.

To aid information sharing among universities and academic departments, three entities have received additional funding: the Chinese Education and Research Network (CERNET), the Library and Documentation Support System (LDSS) and the Modern Equipment and Facilities Sharing System (MEFSS). They will act as central and regional repositories and dissemination centers for information and documents serving all universities in China. Based at Tsinghua University, CERNET is the country’s first Internet-based education and research network, with a series of regional nodes at key universities across the country. The network can be accessed at the majority of China’s institutions of higher education, giving faculty and students access to papers and documents from universities across the country and also offering a vehicle for international collaboration.

For a list of the 211 universities, visit: www.eol.cn/article/20030911/3090736.shtml [2]

For a list of specializations, visit: www.eol.cn/article/20050517/3137568.shtml [3] (Chinese only).

Project 985

Supplemental to 211 funding are three-year grants that were made available to a smaller group of universities under what is known as the 985 Project. Some observers believe the introduction of the 985 Project suggests that the Chinese government recognizes it may fail to develop 100 universities of world-class standing in the near future as the money has been too thinly spread.

When it was first announced in 1998, funding was made available to an elite group of 10 universities, including Beijing, Tsinghua, Fudan, Zhejiang and Nanjing. Both Beijing University and Tsinghua University, the top two ranked universities in China, were granted US$225 million each over five years, while Nanjing University and Shanghai Jiaotong University each received US$150 million. The second phase of the 985 Project, launched in 2004, widened the number of universities to 36.

In addition to developing new research centers and improving facilities, much of the 985 funding is being used to hold international conferences, attract world-renowned faculty and visiting scholars, and to help Chinese faculty attend conferences abroad. Through these international networking opportunities Chinese universities are exploring ways to partner with top institutions around the world. As a result, dual-degree programs and joint-venture campuses are now becoming increasingly common and foreign institutions are more aware than ever of the need to engage with China and Chinese academia.

The ability to offer competitive salaries will be critical for Chinese universities in attracting top international faculty. If they can lure and retain top academic talent then Chinese universities will no doubt begin to perform better on the Shanghai ranking and other international rankings.

985 Universities

  • Tsinghua University
  • Beijing University
  • University of Science and Technology of China
  • Nanjing University
  • Fudan University
  • Shanghai Jiaotong University
  • Xi’an Jiatong University
  • Zhejiang University
  • Harbin University of Industry
  • Nankai University
  • Tianjin University
  • Southwest University
  • Huajong University of Science and Technology
  • Wuhan University
  • Xiamen University
  • Shandong University
  • Hunan University
  • China Maritime University
  • Central South University
  • Jilin University
  • Beijing University of Technology
  • Dalian University of Technology
  • Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • Chongqing University
  • Xi’an University of Science and Technology
  • Sichuan University
  • South China University of Science and Technology
  • Sun Yatsen University
  • Lanzhou University
  • Northeast University
  • Northwest University of Industry
  • Tongji University
  • Beijing Normal University
  • China Renmin University
  • China Agricultural University
  • National University of Defense Technology
  • Central Minorities University
  • Northwest University of Science


Time will tell whether  the new funding  schemes will raise the quality of Chinese higher education  or whether they will further entrench what is often described as a two-tier higher education system — epitomized through much of the communist era by the priority funding that so-called “key universities” have received. Maybe there will be a trickle-down effect, and lesser regional universities and colleges will benefit from the funding the nation’s top institutions enjoy, through such innovations as CERNET or through better-trained faculty. But with the limited funding the Chinese government budgets for education, currently estimated at just 3 percent of GDP, the benefits may not reach much beyond those institutions that traditionally have enjoyed the greatest attention from Beijing.  But even with more lavish funding, these institutions may not attract the world’s best minds unless the government lessens its control over university administration and curriculum to allow for greater academic freedom.