Education Higher Education in China
Rui Yang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0157


China is an old civilization with extraordinarily rich traditions in higher learning. Its modern higher education system, however, is a Western transplant from the late 19th century. Since 1949, higher education development in China has experienced twists and turns as a result of international and domestic sociopolitical turbulences. The past three and a half decades have witnessed particularly impressive achievements. The system has been quickly transformed into the world’s largest in terms of numbers of students and teachers and the second largest producer of scientific papers. It has now been well established to contribute to the rise of Chinese power. Meanwhile, China has become increasingly proud of the idea that Chinese universities are not willing to assume that Western models define excellence. It is time to assess China’s higher education development, and question how far Chinese universities could move within their current development model.

A Growing Body of Literature

For a long time, Chinese higher education attracted little international scholarly attention. With the exception of Ruth Hayhoe whose launch into research on this topic (Hayhoe 1983) was based on her “very specific historical puzzle” of the Chinese ethos of modern scholarship, few people had conducted research on higher education in China in a long-lasting and in-depth manner. Recently, however, against a backdrop of China’s rise, there is a need for better understanding its implications for and effects on the future of the world order. A growing amount of research is being done to map where China will be located in the global landscape of higher education in the years to come. Some “mainstream” scholars have begun to look at China’s higher education seriously (Levin 2010, Marginson 2011). Since the early 1980s, a large number of Chinese students and scholars have traveled to study and work in the West. Many of them write on Chinese higher education. There also exists a highly productive and organized community for higher education research in China with a large number of specialized researchers and institutes (Chen and Hu 2012; Wang and Liu 2014). The community has not been known internationally mainly because it operates in Chinese.

  • Chen, Shuang-Ye, and Li-Fang Hu. 2012. Higher education research as a field in China: Its formation and current landscape. Higher Education Research and Development 31.5: 655–666.

    DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2012.692116

    The past thirty years has witnessed the growth of higher education research in China consisting of various disciplines and addressing practical and policy issues. The work is locally rooted yet increasingly outward-looking.

  • Hayhoe, Ruth. 1983. Towards the forging of a Chinese university ethos: Zhendan and Fudan, 1903–1919. China Quarterly 94 (June): 323–341.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0305741000016520

    Fudan is one of China’s few universities to survive the vicissitudes of the last century’s political upheavals. Its development demonstrates certain degree of success in creating a modern Chinese-style university on the ruins of the traditional education system whose values persisted in spite of the abolition of the formal system.

  • Levin, Richard. 2010. Top of the class: The rise of Asia’s universities. Foreign Affairs (May/June):63–75.

    Asian countries seek to expand their higher education systems, and since the late 1990s, China has done so dramatically. They aspire to create world-class universities. It is likely that by mid-century the top Asian universities will stand among the best universities in the world.

  • Marginson, Simon. 2011. Higher education in East Asia and Singapore: Rise of the Confucian Model. Higher Education 61.5: 587–611.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10734-010-9384-9

    Major Confucian societies have created a distinctive model of higher education that rests on four interdependent elements: strong nationstate; a tendency to universal tertiary participation; “one chance” national examinations; and accelerated public investment in research and world-class universities.

  • Wang, Qi, and Nian Cai Liu. 2014. Higher education research institutes in Chinese universities. Studies in Higher Education 39.8: 1488–1498.

    DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.949544

    Higher education research institutes in Mainland China have experienced rapid expansion. Their development is closely related to the growth of the higher education system as well as research development.

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