Chinese Universities: Evolution, Reach/Penetration, Potential and Challenges


Whenever “dissecting” national economic success stories with a reverse engineering state of mind, education tends to be an important common denominator at the very least, perhaps even the most important one. This is because, as economists such as Adam Smith have made clear centuries ago, the wealth of a nation doesn’t lie in the natural resources it controls but rather in the productive capacity of its citizens.

Unleashing that productivity potential without education is pretty much impossible, which is why we’ve put the education dimension of China under the microscope through an article that you can read HERE. Today, it’s time to adopt a more granular perspective and take a look at China’s university system or, in other words, focus on the higher education dimension.

Two seemingly contradictory words can be used to describe Chinese universities: fragmentation and results.

Let us start with the latter by making it clear that whether we are referring to the sheer number of universities or metrics such as international recognition, staggering progress has been made. As a bit of a reference point, let’s just say that toward the end of the 20th century (1998, to be more precise), the paramount leader of China Jiang Zemin decided to consider higher education a priority due to the fact that less than 4% of the population was represented by college-educated individuals and that a population powerhouse such as China barely managed to surpass a yearly “output” of 800,000 graduates.

As time passed and reforms started generating results, China went from a high six-figure number of yearly graduates to today’s mid to high seven-figure number of yearly graduates and a percentage of college-educated citizens in the 10% zone. Percentage-wise, China is still not in stellar shape by Western standards but as always, the trend seems to be its friend at this point, with over 700 universities established since 2007, bringing the grant total north of 2,600.

Not only that but some of them are even dominant by international standards, such as:

  • Tsinghua University, the best-ranked Asian university according to Times Higher Education (2019 data), with a score of 83.1
  • Peking University, with a score of 76.2 and a more than respectable #4 ranking
  • University of Science and Technology of China, with a score of 66.8
  • Zhejiang University, with a score of 65.8
  • Fudan University, with a score of 62.5
  • Nanjing University, with a score of 62.1

If we also add Hong Kong to the mix (a more sensitive topic, as explained through an article that can be accessed by clicking HERE), the pool becomes even more impressive, with institutions such as:

  • Chinese University of Hong Kong, with a score of 73.2
  • City University of Hong Kong, with a score of 64.6
  • Hong Kong Polytechnic University, with a score of 58.5

… the list could go on and on.

Suffice it to say that China’s university system is the largest worldwide, with almost 40 million students at this point in time. Internationally-speaking, its universities are perceived as good enough to make China the #1 destination for Asian students but on the opposite end of the spectrum, China is also a source of students who decide to study abroad, with over 700,000 young people having decided to do just that.

Unfortunately, there are challenges and even downright problems associated with Chinese universities.

First and foremost, just like with pretty much all dimensions of the Chinese economy, we are dealing with problematic fragmentation. The fact that regions such as Beijing and Shanghai are problematically dominant whereas other regions tend to be left behind poses a systemically relevant problem from the perspective of higher education access, optimality as well as sustainability.

Next, we have another common Chinese issue, a sometimes severe lack of flexibility in general and ideological flexibility in particular. For example, one of the main issues associated with Chinese universities is represented by the fact that sub-optimal teaching techniques persist, techniques which revolve around excessive memorizing rather than developing skills and problem-solving abilities. While the problem has been identified and progress is being made, China has a lot of work ahead of it in this respect. Moving on to the ideology dimension, once again, rigidity with respect to especially tricky issues such as adopting Western systems is problematic. For example, even the education minister ended up recommending censorship to universities so as to curb the spread of Western values back in 2015. Let’s just say that despite massive investments in higher education infrastructure and pretty much everything else related to Chinese universities, this lack of intellectual freedom cannot help but act as a bottleneck.

Other problem sources end up being represented by anything from high tuition costs (relative to the still-unimpressive purchasing power of the Chinese population, despite mega-trends such as robust middle class growth) to inadequate access to higher education (with competition levels for top universities being staggering by Westerns standards in terms of how many potential students are competing for each spot).

The bottom line is this: more than enough progress has been made with respect to Chinese universities for us to be able to state that we have moved away from terms such as “potential” to alternatives that make it clear impressive results have already been achieved, both when it comes to sheer numbers and to dimensions such as international recognition. Still, systemic problems linger, with many opportunities on the horizon for those who are capable of successfully addressing them. If your goals revolve around being on the receiving end of Chinese university-related mega-trends, the team is (as always) at your disposal.

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