Major Strides in China’s Higher Education

Over the past five years, China has graduated 34.3 million students from its universities, more than the total in the 20 years before 2006, disclosed the Chinese Ministry of Education spokeswoman last month.  The Ministry has set some lofty goals for 2020 to “…modernize education, shape a learning society, and turn China into a country rich in human resources”.   Last year, there were about 31 million students enrolled in China’s institutions of higher learning and within a decade, this figure will reach 35.5 million.  There were also 1.5 million graduate students along with about 5.4 million adult undergraduate students.  Noting these numbers and trends, Mr Richard Levin, President of Yale University, described the expansion as the fastest in human history. 
The number of foreign student registrations in China’s universities is similarly fast on the rise.  In 2010, a total of 265,000 students from 194 countries enrolled in China, led by South Koreans, Americans, and Japanese.  Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, Indonesia, India, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan round out the top ten source countries.  The Education Ministry seeks to attract 500,000 students by 2020 as the US and China pledged to bring 100,000 Americans to study in China over the next four years.  At the same time, almost 285,000 Chinese study abroad, more than 1/3 in the US.  Last year, the Education Ministry and provincial education departments offered a combined 910 million RMB (US$138 million) in scholarships to 22,400 recipients.  In addition, nearly 300 Confucius Institutes have been set up around the world to spread Chinese language and culture.         
The quality of China’s elite universities has been rising quickly in international rankings.  In the QS Quacquarelli Symonds 2010 ranking, one of the most authoritative released last autumn, Peking University placed 47th and Tsinghua University 54th, beaten by the top three Hong Kong institutions, University of Hong Kong (23), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (40) and Chinese University of Hong Kong (42).  In the Thomson Reuters rankings that came out about the same time, Peking U. placed 37th, University of Science and Technology of China 49th, ahead of Tsinghua U. (58th).  A decade ago, mainland Chinese universities were nowhere to found in the top 100. 
Interestingly, however, in Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Center for World-Class Universities 8th ranking last summer, China’s most authoritative, Peking University and Tsinghua University ranked considerably lower, within the tranche of institutions from 151st to 200th.  Shanghai Jiaotong uses criteria such as number of Nobel prizes and Fields medals won by staff and alumni, the number of highly cited researchers, and the number of articles published in Nature and Science magazines.  It seems that with the dearth of Chinese Nobel laureates and less frequent international journal citations, the rankings of mainland universities were severely affected.
Yet, in actuality, since the inauguration of the Ministry’s education and research revival plan 13 years ago, the number of Chinese scientific papers as a percentage of the world total has risen from 3.05% in 1999 to over 8% in 2008 and the pace is increasing.  In terms of secondary education, the quality of Chinese learning has improved dramatically.  In the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 15 year olds around the world, students in Shanghai beat all other countries/regions in math, reading and science.  The US ranked 31st, 17th, and 23rd respectively, causing President Obama to invoke the Sputnik analogy in a pitch to increase math and science education spending. 
 Chinese students spend less time than their American counterparts on athletics, music and other extra-curricular activities.  In addition, teaching salaries have risen sharply in China and Shanghai educational authorities have undertaken curricular reforms, allowing more freedom for experimentation.  Although Shanghai is not representative of all China, educators close to the tests predict that within a decade, most Chinese cities will equal Shanghai test scores.  A former US Department of Education Official under the Bush Administration had been sceptical of PISA results but now considers them ‘unassailable’.  He added that the results refute the commonly held hypothesis that China merely produces rote learning.