Key numbers from China's 2010-2020 education plan

February 28, 2010, [MD]

In 2001, I spent a year teaching English in Wuhan University of Science and Technology. That certainly gave me a first flavor of Chinese university life, but I still understood very little about the Chinese higher education system - partly because that university was a private-public venture, which (at least my campus) seemed to focus more on training than education, let alone research. Also, my Chinese was not good enough at that time to really understand all that went on. In the last two years, I've been researching a large Open Educational Resource project in Chinese higher education for my MA. During this time, I've had a chance to visit many Chinese universities, interact with Chinese professors and MA students, give some lectures, read a number of academic articles, etc.

I've also had reason to learn more about the history and development of Chinese higher education, since this is very related to my research (which is in comparative education). Finally, because I am in general interested in higher education, and have been amazed at the rapid progress of the Chinese system, I've tried to understand more about the national debate.

Recently, I was made aware of a report called the "National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020)" (国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要), which will lay out the direction of Chinese education for the next ten years. This report has been more than a year in the making, with a large amount of public consultations, online consultations, and a series of expert roundtables, where both the Minister of Education, and the Prime Minister of China have participated.

Most of my research, and interest, is around higher education, so I will focus on that. During the Cultural Revolution, higher education was essentially suspended, and it only reopened in 1977, with the relaunching of the national unified exam. This was also the beginning of the 30 years of opening, which is currently celebrated in China. In the 1990's, the government instituted large projects like Project 985 and Project 211 to increase the quality of education, and introduce communications technology into higher education. 1999 saw the beginning of an explosive growth in the system, which led to the 4 million enrolled students when I was teaching in 2001 becoming 27 million enrolled students in 2009.

So what do the next ten years hold? So far, the news that has been most widely reported is the idea that universities will become more independent from the government. I might blog more after I've read the report (it's quite long), but for now, I thought I'd repost, and translate, their table over how key numbers will change from 2010 to 2020. The entire report can be found here (in a horrible Word-converted HTML file, which uses 2.7 MB to present 80KB worth of text). I didn't find many English news articles about the report, but there are some mentions from domestic media (1, 2, 3).

2009 2015 2020
kids in kindergarten 26M 35M 40M
three year pre-school participation rate 50.9% 62% 75%
one year pre-school participation rate 74% 90% 95%
nine year obligatory schooling
students 157M 161M 165M
participation rate 90.8% 93% 95%
high school students 46M 45M 47M
participation rate 79.2% 87% 90%
vocational education
secondary vocational education students 21M 22M 23M
higher vocational education students 13M 14M 15M
higher education
students 30M 33M 35M
students on campus 28M 31M 33M
of which: graduate students 1.4M 1.7M 2M
participation rate 24.2% 36% 40%
continuing education
employed persons in continuing education 166M 290M 350M
goals for developing human capital
population having attained higher education 98M 145M 195M
average years of education for working population 9.5Y 10.5Y 11.2Y
of which: received higher education 9.9% 15% 20%
average years of education for new work force 12.4Y 13.3Y 13.5Y
of which: received high school degree 67% 87% 90%

A few things which I noticed. The participation rate of students goes up drastically (from 25% to 40%), but the number of students does not. This must mean that demographic predictions show a large decrease in cohort sizes. This is natural, given the lowering birthrates, but I didn't expect it to be so clear. That will have a huge impact on the Chinese labor market in the future. I am also curious about how the much higher level of general education among the labor force in 2020, including a doubling in the amount of working-age people with a university degree, will have on all aspects of Chinese society.

This also explains why the expansion of Chinese higher education has now more or less stopped - I thought it was because they were not planning to raise participation rate strongly during the next few years, but in fact, with an increase in enrolment of just 16% over 10 years (nothing for a system that six-doubled enrolment in the previous ten years), China can reach a participation rate of 40%, which is very respectable internationally. This also means that all the new money coming into the system (another important number is that they want to raise investment in education to 4% of GDP - this of course a GDP that itself increases by 8-12% per year) will go to improve access (there is much talk about fairness and access in the plan) and quality.

Also interesting that they are not planning to increase the number of distance education students (this is my inference from the gap between students and students on campus). This is congruent with what I have heard from friends, that China is trying to reorient it's substantial distance-education system from it's previous role as a stop-gap from a higher education system that did not have space for everyone who wanted to study, to a tool for implementing life-long learning. This is also seen from the very ambitious figures for life-long learning (350M employed persons participating in life-long learning by 2020!).

The only kind of higher education which will increase rapidly in numbers is the number of graduate students, which will grow by 42% in real terms. Given the predicted smaller cohorts, this will mean a very large increase in the percentage of students with graduate degrees.

Given that this is a report focused on education, and not research, it doesn't say anything about the growth in professors, researchers etc. There is another report focusing on the growth of science and technology from 2006 to 2020, which might talk more about this. These are the only numbers in the report (in a table format), the other parts seem to be much more oriented to ideals and directions, rather than measurable targets. But I will write more when I've read the whole thing.

Stian Håklev February 28, 2010 Toronto, Canada
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