Education in China


With a population of almost 1.4 billion and a burgeoning middle class, China sends more students abroad than any other country in the world. Around 460,000 Chinese nationals were enrolled at foreign educational institutions in 2014, a rise of 11 percent over the previous year. The U.S. is a major destination for these students, with fully two-thirds (304,040) enrolled in U.S. institutions in the 2014/2015 school year.

In light of a marked slowdown in the Chinese economy, U.S. institutions seeking to attract significant numbers of Chinese applicants and enrollees need insight into the educational environment from which they come. This educational profile seeks to provide that insight.


Although China’s top-tier modern-style universities were founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the history of formal education in China predates the establishment of Western-style educational institutions by centuries. The imperial education and examination system developed as a meritocratic means to train and select civil servants, by some reckonings as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE.)

In the second half of the twentieth century the Chinese higher-education landscape was shaped by the Soviet-style reorganization. Starting in the 1950s, universities became primarily teaching institutions, affiliated with specific government bodies. They taught related subjects, such as medicine, art or agriculture. The result was a high degree of specialization and lack of cross-fertilization between the disciplines. This changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when formerly specialized institutions were joined to form larger, more diverse universities. These institutions were granted increased autonomy over decisions about hiring, admissions, and the allocation of funds.

Over the last quarter century, China has seen a “massification” of its university system. The number of 18- to 22-year-olds in higher education has increased dramatically, from four percent in 1990 to 6.5 percent in 1999 to 37.5 percent in 2014. As of 2016, the number of graduates to flood China’s labor market each year is seven million.

The factors behind this explosive growth are diverse, and include the demands of a growing middle class, economic expansion, and government policies that explicitly seek to bolster participation in higher education. In terms of enrollment rates, those policies have been broadly successful, but critics charge that a focus on the country’s most prestigious institutions, led by Peking University and Tsinghua University, has created an imbalance in quality. Well-known initiatives such as Project 211 and Project 985, for example, have allocated billions of dollars to a limited number of top-tier public schools in an effort to increase their international standing and support research output. (These initiatives are discussed in greater detail below.)

Public and Private institutions

Many of the country’s best and most generously funded universities are in Beijing, Shanghai, and the great cities of eastern China, and all of them are public. However, China has seen exponential growth in the number of private institutions of higher education (minban) since the 1980s, when laws governing the sector began to be relaxed. More recently, China has come to see private institutions as a key mechanism for addressing the scale of demand. The 2002 Law on the Promotion of Privately Run Schools, for example, states explicitly that private educational institutions are integral to the invigoration “of the country through science, technology and education.”

In the fifteen years leading up to 2014, the number of private higher education institutions in operation rose from 39 to 727. The quality of these institutions is highly variable, say observers, and their status and future are hotly debated. Recent enrollments have declined steeply for some schools, not least because internationalization has heightened competition for qualified students.

Programs offered by private institutions are generally more practice-oriented than their counterparts in the public sector. Other differences between the two types of institution involve admission requirements, governance, and, not least, funding models. Public universities, which receive government funding as well as tuition fees (introduced in the 1990s), are generally more affordable than their private counterparts.

Government Improvement Initiatives

Institutions in the Chinese higher ed sector are of radically differing quality, with an elite few at the top. This stratification is, in part, the result of government policy. In the mid-1990s, the Central government launched two significant initiatives – and invested tens of billions of dollars – to improve the quality and international competitiveness of top-tier higher education institutions in China. These initiatives include:

Project 211: The State Council, Department of Finance and the Ministry of Education of China co-issued the General Plan for Project 211 in 1995 to strengthen selected higher education institutions and key disciplines. The project started with 99 institutions. It currently includes 112 universities. Target areas of improvement are the overall infrastructure of institutions, key disciplines, and higher education public services system. (See List of Institutions.)

Project 985: The State Council and the Ministry of Education of China launched Project 985 in 1998 with the explicit aim of building world-class universities. Thirty-nine elite institutions received a large earmark of $US 40.4billion (264.9 billion CNY) from the central government and $US 28.4 billion (186.3 billion CNY) from local government to enhance their research capacity. (See list of institutions.)

Student Mobility Trends

The number of Chinese students at foreign institutions in 2014 increased by more than 11 percent over the previous year. Most enroll in institutions of higher education, while junior and senior high school students account for approximately 30 percent of the total. In 2010, the government announced plans to increase the number of international students in China to 500,000 by 2020 (up from 265,000 at the time.) To attract foreign academics and students, it has substantially increased the number of undergraduate and graduate programs at Chinese universities taught exclusively in English. Plan 111, launched in 2005, aims to attract global talent to China’s top-tier universities. Since the early 1990s, generous funds have also been made available to encourage Chinese star academics working abroad to return to their home country.

Chinese students began to arrive in the U.S. after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s. Since then, their numbers have increased by up to 30 percent year on year, reaching a high of 304,040 in 2014–2015. The U.S. is now the top host country for students from China; California, New York and Texas are the leading destinations. Driving factors include fierce competition for admission to China’s elite universities, the prestige of studying at American universities, and China’s rapid economic growth.

Among Chinese students at American universities, 41 percent are undergraduates and 39 percent are graduate students. The most popular fields of study for these students are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, followed by business studies. A growing number have also begun to enroll in fine and applied arts programs.

Joint Chinese-foreign educational programs and institutions in China are increasingly common. These include partnerships between Chinese and foreign universities, such as NYU Shanghai (New York University with East China Normal University) and the Joint Institute of Engineering (a collaboration between Sun Yat-Sen University and Carnegie Mellon University.) Increasingly popular “2+2” programs allow students to study for two years at a Chinese university and for two years at a university in another country such as the U.K., Australia or the U.S. Partnerships between Chinese and American universities on American soil, notably the Global Innovation Exchange, are also increasingly common. A joint project of Tsinghua University, the University of Washington and Microsoft, the Global Innovation Exchange (slated to open in late 2016 in the Seattle area) will offer graduate degrees in technology-related fields.

China also uses education as a form of “soft power” to increase its influence in other countries. Examples include the Confucius Institute program, which operates at higher education institutions around the globe to promote Chinese language and culture. Another effort, the China Scholarship Council, provides funding for both Chinese students abroad and foreign students in China. A spate of recent measures also seek to strengthen ties with specific regions. For instance, in early 2016, China’s government announced the establishment of 10,000 scholarships for nationals of Arab League member states and 30,000 scholarships for students from Africa.

China’s Education System

Education in mainland China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) is governed on three levels: national, provincial, and local.

  • At the national level, the Ministry of Education is the central government agency responsible for formulating macro education policies.
  • Provincial education departments manage the local policy development and implementation under the guideline of the state regulations. Apart from 111 prestigious universities under the direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and other central government authorities, and a few universities administered jointly by the central and provincial governments, the majority of higher education institutions are affiliated with provincial authorities or lower local governments.
  • The local education authorities have primary supervision responsibility over elementary education.

The most common language of instruction in elementary and secondary schools is Mandarin, the official language in China. In regions where the majority of students are ethnic minorities, instruction is offered in both Mandarin and the dominant local language.

There are two stages in China’s compulsory education system: elementary school and junior high school. Some provinces employ a 6+3 system – six years of elementary school followed by three years of junior high school – while others use a 5+4 system. Students can continue to study at senior secondary level if they pass the senior high school entrance examination (zhongkao.) Local education authorities organize the examination with the oversight from provincial administrative body.

Elementary Education and Junior High School

The Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China requires that, starting at age six, all children must complete nine years of compulsory elementary and junior high school. As of 2014, more than a hundred million children were enrolled in some 200,000 elementary schools and 52,600 junior high schools nationwide.

The Ministry of Education issued the Guidelines for Elementary Education Curriculum Reforms in 2001. The new curriculum structure was adopted nationwide in 2005. The elementary curriculum focuses on general education, covering moral education, Chinese language, mathematics, arts, and physical education. Starting at Grade 3, the curriculum introduces science class, English, and comprehensive practice component, including information technology, innovative research, community practice and service, and labor education. Elementary school graduates automatically attend junior high schools in proximity without examinations.

Junior high school curriculum incorporates more subjects in addition to the general education courses. The area of study consists of moral education, Chinese, mathematics, foreign language, sciences (physics, chemistry, biology), history and society (or geography), physical education and health, arts (music and fine arts), and comprehensive practice. The schools can select one from English, Japanese and Russian to be taught in foreign language class.

Curriculum and Ratio (Compulsory Education)

Secondary Education

There are two types of schools at senior secondary level: regular high school and vocational high school. The length of study for each program is at least three years. The length of the regular program is three years; three to four years may be required for vocational programs. Each academic year starts in September and ends in June or July, and includes two semesters of 19 or 20 weeks.

Regular High Schools

In 2014, 13,000 regular high schools in China admitted nearly 8 million new students on top of 24 million existing enrollments. Regular high school enrollments account for for 56.2 percent of total upper secondary population.

Students in regular high school typically have to choose between the science stream and the art stream of study prior to the start of 11th grade. Graduation depends on credits, which are allocated based on completion of modules in eight categories. Students obtain two credits upon completion of each module. To progress from grade to grade, they must complete a minimum number of credits.

Required subjects include:

  1. Language and literature: Chinese and foreign language
  2. Mathematics
  3. Humanities and society: Geography, history, ideology, and politics
  4. Science: Biology, chemistry, geography, and physics
  5. Technology: General technology, and information technology
  6. Comprehensive practice: Community service, research-oriented study, and social practice
  7. Physical and health education
  8. Arts: Fine arts and music

To obtain a high school diploma, students have to meet a minimum requirement of 144 credits and also pass either the General Examination for High School Students (also known as the huikao or joint exam) or the Academic Proficiency Test (APT). All subjects included in the curriculum are examined. The specific content and format of all examinations are designed and administered by the provincial and local education authorities.

Passing the General Examination for High School Students or APT is also the prerequisite for sitting the National College Entrance Examination (Gaokao,) a high stakes examination that is mandatory for enrollment in China’s regular higher education system. (Additional admission requirements and details of the higher education system are discussed below.)

Vocational and Technical High Schools

Vocational high school curriculum has two major categories: academic foundation and vocational/specialty subjects. The ratio of academic to vocational courses is typically 4:6. Moral education, Chinese, mathematics, computer applications and physical education are among the mandatory subjects. Vocational courses include foundational and specialty courses, teaching practice, and a comprehensive internship. Study hours are equally distributed between practice and theory learning. The internship usually spans an entire semester.

Higher Education in China

China’s higher education is highly stratified. Structurally, it is divided into two sectors: regular higher education and adult higher education. As of 2015, the Ministry of Education reported a total of 2,845 Chinese higher education institutions (HEIs) in both the regular and adult higher education sectors. Tertiary education can also be obtained through a prescribed self-study program.

Regular Higher Education

Ninety percent of China’s HEIs (2,553) are in the regular higher education sector. Over 70 percent of undergraduate students are enrolled at regular higher education institutions.

Not all Chinese institutions of higher education, even in the regular sector, offer degrees; many offer only graduation certificates. Around 1,202 institutions in the regular higher education sector are academically oriented and grant degrees. The remainder focus on practical and occupational skills and offer graduation certificates. (Additional details of certifications and degrees are discussed below.)

The regular higher education sector includes 447 private institutions, 275 independent colleges (quasi-private), and seven Chinese-foreign cooperative initiatives, set up as joint partnerships between Chinese and foreign education institutions.

Adult Higher Education

Adult education programs follow the curriculum offered by regular institutions, but the teaching format is more flexible and diverse, including distance-learning and part-time study. Just under 30 percent of undergraduate students are enrolled in adult higher education institutions.

Self-Study Programs

In addition to regular and adult education, higher education can be obtained through a “self-study” program. Depending on the level of study (junior college or undergraduate), the program consists of 12-20 subject examinations in a pre-determined discipline. Success is assessed via self-taught higher education examinations.

Self-taught higher education has an entirely open enrollment policy that accepts applications from all backgrounds and academic levels. Applicants register with the provincial Self-taught Higher Education Examinations Committee and complete the program at their own pace. Depending on the level of study (junior college or undergraduate), the program consists of 12-20 subject examinations in a pre-determined discipline. Students receive a graduation certificate, called the biye zhengshu (毕业证书,) when they obtain satisfactory test results in all subjects. Upon completion of a self-taught undergraduate program and fulfillment of a handful of additional requirements, students can apply for a bachelor’s degree certificate called a xueshixuewei zhengshu (学士学位证书.)

Admissions to Higher Education

Regular higher education: Admission to a regular higher education institution is dependent on high school graduation and Gaokao scores. The Gaokao is held on June 7 and 8 every year. (Some provinces extend the exam to the 9th.) Results are released by the end of June. Applicants are typically high school students in their senior year, however there has been no age restriction since 2001. Nearly nine million students take the Gaokao annually.

Adult higher education: Admission to adult higher education institutions, or adult education programs at regular universities, is based on the National Adult College Entrance Examination (also known as “the adult Gaokao.”) Applicants are expected to have academic skills on par with high school graduates at the time of the examination, however a high school diploma is not required for enrollment in adult higher education programs.

Degrees and Certificates

As of 2015, roughly 1,350 of China’s HEIs offer two- to three-year junior college programs leading to a graduation certificate rather than a graduation degree. Compared to academically oriented degree programs, these non-degree programs focus on practical and occupational skills. Graduates of these programs either enter the workforce or opt to apply for “top-up” programs, which are designed to allow them to study further in a bachelor’s program for an additional two to three years.

An estimated 1,200 institutions in the regular higher education sector grant degrees. There are three ladders of degrees in China: bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate.

Bachelor’s Degrees

Bachelor’s programs normally require four years of full-time study in a traditional classroom setting. (Some programs at the bachelor’s level — for instance, architecture, medicine, and a few engineering programs — require five-years of study.)

The curriculum in most disciplines consists of four major areas:

  • General compulsory subjects such as computer basics, English, mathematics, ideology and politics, fundamentals of law, and physical education
  • General elective subjects in humanities and sciences
  • Specialty compulsory subjects in the chosen field of study
  • Specialty elective subjects in the student’s focus of interest

Students also have to complete other components of the graduation requirements, including short-term or long-term internships, social practice, external English tests, and a thesis. Upon successful fulfillment of these criteria, students are typically awarded two types of certification:

  • A graduation certificate issued directly by the institution
  • A bachelor’s degree certificate issued by the Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council.

The graduation certificate is the prerequisite of the awarding of degree. In cases where the student does not meet the requirements for a bachelor’s degree, they may still receive the graduation certificate.

Master’s Degrees

Students with a bachelor’s degree can apply for admission to master’s programs. At master’s level, there are two types of program: academic and professional. Most full-time academic programs are three years long. Professional programs are typically two years long; there are 39 recognized professional degrees at master’s level.

Upon successful completion of master’s programs, students receive a master’s degree certificate, called a shuoshi xuewei zhengshu (硕士学位证书.) The certificate should denote whether the program was academic or professional.

Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral programs, the highest-level degree programs offered in China, normally require a minimum of three years to complete. During this period, students are expected to complete coursework, pass a final examination, and write and defend a dissertation. A doctoral degree certificate, called a boshi xuewei zhengshu (博士学位证书,) is awarded upon successful completion of all requirements.


Higher Education Evaluation Center (HEEC)

The Higher Education Evaluation Center was founded in 2004 and operates under the Ministry of Education. The HEEC is tasked with systematic evaluation of institutions of higher education and their programs.

Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Center (CDGDC)

The Academic Degrees and Graduate Education Development Center was set up in 2003 and operates under the joint leadership of the Ministry of Education and the Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council.

The CDGDC evaluates academic degrees and graduate education, and verifies the authenticity of academic degree certificates.

Governance for China-Foreign Cooperative Programs

The Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools took effect in September 2003. These regulations standardize governance of jointly run Chinese-foreign schools, with the objective of fostering international educational exchange and enhancing development of China’s education system. The regulations articulate the legal and procedural responsibilities of Chinese educational institutions and foreign partners involved in the establishment, administration, financing, and teaching at joint venture schools . All approved programs can be view on an authorized platform. The types of institutions eligible do not include compulsory education service or special education services such as military, police and political education.

Grading Scales

Secondary Grading Scales

The most common equivalency scales for grades in secondary schools are as follows:

Undergraduate Grading Scales

The most common equivalency scale for grades in higher education coursework are as follows:

Document Requirements

The document requirements for credential evaluation may include the following. Please visit Required Academic Documents: China for detailed information.

Higher Education

Verification reports must be sent directly to WES by one of the Ministry-authorized verification offices for: graduation certificates, degree certificates, and academic transcripts.

Secondary Education

Verification reports must be sent directly to WES by CDGDC for the General Education Examination – Huikao or Xueye Shuiping Ceshi. Academic transcripts issued in English must be sent directly to WES by the institutions attended. Photocopies of Chinese-language graduation certificates must be submitted by applicant.
bigSample Documents: China
This file of Sample Documents (pdf) shows the following set of annotated credentials from the Chinese education system:

  • High School Graduation Certificate (original and CDGDC report)
  • General Examination for High School Students (CDGDC report)
  • Junior College Graduation Certificate (biye zhengshu and CDGDC report)
  • Bachelor Degree Certificate (xueshi xuewei zhengshu and CDGDC report)
  • Bachelor Degree Transcript (school-issued document and CDGDC report)
  • Master Degree Certificate (shuoshi xuewei zhengshu and CDGDC report)
  • Master Degree Transcript (school-issued document and CDGDC report)


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