China's university system: significant achievements, bright future

By Eugene Clark and Sam Blay
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 10, 2019
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Graduates attend the 2019 commencement ceremony of Wuhan University in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei province, June 21, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

In today's Knowledge Economy, a most important resource is human talent, and universities as centers of research, teaching and learning are the incubators of the talent and knowledge base underpinning the leading economies of the world including China. 

Its higher education system comprising almost 3,000 universities enrolling over 20 million students, is at the heart of the country's strong economic development. 

University-operated industries and industry–government–university collaborations are now making very significant contributions to China's competitive global economic and strategic position. 

China's higher education system has seen significant development since the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy in the 1970s. The reforms and expansion in higher education system have continued ever since as China has increased resources that have enabled several of its universities to being ranked as among the best in the world.  

While further reform is required, universities since the 1980s have enjoyed greater investment and general support from governments at all levels and industry. 

China is now one of the top destinations in attracting foreign students and teachers. Through the 1000 Talents Program and other schemes, much needed faculty expertise has further contributed to the quality of universities. 

China has invested heavily in improving its universities to achieve a world ranking. As a whole, research funding has dramatically increased the number of patents and publications coming out of Chinese universities. 

On the negative side, this system has created a significant gap between those universities selected for increased funding (for example through the Project 211) and other public universities that don't benefit from such funding.  

As in other countries, there is work to be done in China on enhancing access to post-secondary education. China's rising middle class will demand universities responsive to their needs. 

For example, private universities have grown substantially to offer higher education to add diversity to the sector and provide access to those who have not received a sufficiently high score on the Gaokao (China's national college entrance exam). 

Then, there is the equity challenge of geographic disparity. Western and inland regions require further investment in education if they are to achieve the economic growth and development achieved by the coastal regions.  

China needs to continue to improve the quality of its regulation. In an Information Age with many advances in knowledge there are many disrupters. Universities need to have the capacity to move quickly to respond. 

All universities face the challenge of promoting continued improvement in their teaching, research and community service. That means building upon local community and regional strengths, responding to needs and partnering with industry and other community groups to improve all aspects of Chinese society. 

The creation of 15 university-based scientific and technology parks is an excellent example of efforts to enhance innovation. In 2018 China spent 1.76 trillion yuan ($254 billion) on R&D, making it second only to the United States and possibly eventually overtaking it before long.

The Chinese system needs to invest more in student-centered teaching approaches tailored to the needs of individual students. 

It has been argued that China has produced too many of the same type of graduates and thus not been as responsive as it should be to market demands. In the future, greater focus should be placed on giving students the appropriate skill set to enable them to compete on a global stage. 

This includes a greater focus on soft skills such as leadership, communication, project management, negotiation, advocacy, and collaboration.  

While the U.K. remains muddled in Brexit and President Trump's America continues to look inward and abandon an international outlook, there is an opportunity for a growing and emergent China to play a larger external role.  

China's universities should have a leading role in the Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013 by bringing together academics and students from diverse countries to create the pathways to greater partnerships, prosperity, cooperation and improvements for all countries. 

Universities are among the oldest and enduring institutions in world history. However, they will have to exhibit and build upon that resilience as they respond to the challenges of the 21st century and build the empire of the mind. That's a big challenge for China's education planners.  

Eugene Clark is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Sam Blay is former Professor and Deputy Principal, Top Education Institute in Sydney and Professor at the Sydney City School of Law. He is a member of the China International Economic Trade and Arbitration Commission (CIETAC) and a former member of the South China International Economic Arbitration and Trade.

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