The University System in China

In this article we focus on the Chinese university system, analyzing its major features in terms of structure, mode of operations, and funding. Finally, we’ll briefly reflect on the labor market, as it represents the pinnacle of the typical academic path.

One of the Chinese university system’s major peculiarities is its hierarchical structure. Even if the educational sphere’s usage of a pyramidal structure isn’t surprising, it is interesting to observe how it has been influenced by big waves of change, mistakenly suggesting the structure’s progressive equalization. The reforms that took place during the 1980s aimed to satisfy an increasing demands for education, which were fueled by a huge and rapidly growing population. In 1949, when The People’s Republic of China was declared, the government decided to interrupt any form of private education, and in certain cases private institutions were converted into state-owned institutions. Thus, a more favorable approach towards private education has been adopted gradually since the 1980s. Moreover, by 1991 the government had started to recognize independent colleges. Independent colleges generally have a lower reputation that the university system, but they have been useful in satisfying the skyrocketing demand. It is important to underline that the Chinese government named education as one of the main priorities of its agenda.

China’s growth and development combined with an increasing population have lead to a sort of “massification process”. The shift from an elite to a massive system in China has not weakened the pursuit of elitism in higher education. The “mass higher education” did not absolutely substitute “elite higher education”, but rather became a second sector.

As a result, the government has managed to please both parties by keeping the educational levels separate. On one hand, students now have more opportunities to enter academic courses of study, while on the other hand students looking for excellent educations can still apply to highly ranked universities.

To have a better understanding of the configuration of the Chinese academic pyramid, it is useful to categorize the different kinds of institutions; this can be done with respect to the administration they are subordinate to. Generally, the higher the level of the administrative organs that control a university, the higher the university’s reputation. The highest degree of prestige is typically awarded to universities governed by the Ministry of Education. Among these universities, there is a subset of nine universities that constitute the so-called “League 9,” an alliance of the most prestigious universities in China. Graduates from one of these institutions are the most likely to find work in their desired areas of interest. This is not the case for students who graduate from universities occupying lower rankings on the pyramid. Thus, the universities administrated by other ministries, or those administrated at a provincial or municipal level don’t enjoy the same level of recognition, neither in society nor in the labor environment.

What remains to be understood is who are the students admitted to the best universities in China.

The national entrance examination (高考 gaokao) was reintroduced in late 1977 and is conducted once a year. University admission depends primarily on candidates’ results in this examination. However, it is also possible for a select group of students whose academic performance is outstanding to be granted an exemption from the entrance examination and be recommended directly to the university of their choice (保送 baosong). Some private institutions are exempted from the examination exam and accept all students who can afford the tuition fees. Prestigious universities maintain higher admission standards, and therefore require higher scores than other institutions. Admission to these institutions is extremely competitive, and even if it is meritocratic, it has been strongly criticized for the fierce competition that it creates among students. In order to perform well they need to sacrifice big parts of their social lives to dedicate themselves to the preparation for the admission exam.

Having explained the hierarchical structure’s main features, we now move to the typical study program structure. In 1980, the Chinese government passed the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Academic Degrees. These regulations distinguish between the three academic degrees of bachelor, master, and doctor. Students must complete entrance examinations for each level. A bachelor’s degree (学士学位 xueshi xuewei) is awarded at the conclusion of a 4-year undergraduate program. It is followed by the master’s degree (硕士学位 shuoshi xuewei) that takes 2 to 3 years for completion. Admission to a doctorate (博士boshi) program requires a master’s degree, an entrance examination, and recommendations from at least two professors. Doctorate programs take 3 to 5 years for completion, and represent the final step in the academic path.

The Chinese university system is essentially funded by public sources in addition to tuition fees, but public funding is still the most important source of financing for public higher education institutions. Its relative proportion is gradually declining and a diversified higher education financing system is being established. The main reason for this trend is that educational programs have been competing with other modernization programs since 1979, and capital has been critically short as a result.

According to the Minister of Education’s guidelines, tuition should reflect the per student operational costs of the institution, the appropriation from the government, local economic development, and household income. It is a relatively new source of funds for universities. By the early 90s, the government had the burden of financing the whole education system.

Students who can’t afford to pay for their studies have the opportunity of obtaining student loans. The first loan program began in 1986. One of the biggest obstacles for the development of student loans in China has been the lack of a well-established credit system. Conversely, independent colleges and private institutions in general do not obtain any public funding.

The funds are assigned by the government and allotted to universities following the criteria established through governmental plans for the future. In the past there have been two main projects regarding the university system. By 1995, Project 211 provided support for more than one hundred selected prestigious universities (now there are 116), with the purpose to direct them along a path of development. Similarly, Project 985 was first announced in 1998 to promote the development and reputation of the Chinese higher education system by funding world-class universities in the 21st century. There are 39 universities sponsored by Project 985 that have received several funds. These universities are expected to follow a deep process of internationalization, as it is one of the government’s main goals.

Today, the high youth unemployment rate is a relevant social phenomenon. Over the last few years, tension levels are rising, especially among recent graduates. To address the issue of massive unemployment among graduates, the Chinese government has introduced a range of policy measures to create the conditions for “flexible employment”. Indeed, more flexible a labor market, the higher the employment rates at companies. Anyway, these are only temporary remedies for a structural problem. Year after year, the number of new graduates increases. As soon as they try to enter the labor market they are often rejected. The big inequalities stemming from the system’s hierarchical structure emerges clearly in this phase. Graduates find jobs faster if they come from high-ranked universities because they have better reputations.

With respect to the work categories targeted by new graduates, in recent years financial services has become an extremely popular field. They besiege banks, brokerage firms, and other businesses in the sector, hopeful to find higher initial wages compared to other industries. Regarding their majors, graduates with engineering and business degrees find jobs quite easily, while graduates with law and science degrees have greater difficulties finding jobs.

In the next years China will have to face many major issues that can no longer be left unsolved. The high unemployment rate in a country populated by more than one billion citizens could become a social phenomenon that might break the government’s cleverly established equilibriums. The challenge will take place in the near future, when the issues will be confronted directly. Will China find a solution favoring higher level of employment, or will the social problems continue to spread among the young middle class, threatening the country’s future?