Massification of higher education, and prestige projects

In 1993, the Ministry of Education released the Outline for Reform and Development of Education, which put a focus on building up approximately 100 key universities and a number of key disciplines. Project 211, which was mentioned in this plan, was launched through the project “Reform Plan of Teaching Contents and Curriculum of Higher Education Facing the 21st Century” in 2004, which ratified the establishment of 211 big projects and nearly a thousand sub-projects with tens of thousands teachers participating. The plan covered areas of teaching such as teaching ideology, teaching contents, curriculum structure and teaching methodology, and was supported by an advisory group for the consisting of domestic experts from all disciplines (MoE 2010).

The project aimed to establish 100 key universities in China by the 21st Century, but according to Futao Huang (2005), it’s key objectives were: to intensively finance Peking University and Tsinghua University to enable them to become world-class universities, to enhance the quality of 25 other leading universities, and to improve the quality of over 300 key disciplines in different institutions. During the first phase, from 1996 to 2002, about 18.3 billion RMB was allocated from the central government, and by September 2004, 99 universities had been selected and given special support by the government (Huang, 2005). 

This was followed by an Action Plan for Education Promotion for the 21st Century in 1998, which mentioned a number of large projects, such as the Project for Creative Talented People with a High Level, the Plan for Creating the Most Excellent Universities and Disciplines in the World, Modern Long-Distance Education, and the Project for Industrializing the High Technology in the Universities (Huang 2005). The Action Plan also launched project 985, which again began by funding Peking University and Tsinghua University intensively. In July 1999, the Ministry of Education added seven more institutions, and by 2010, it had funded 43 universities.

1998 also saw the beginning of the large scale increase in enrolment in Chinese higher education, with the Ministry of Education releasing the “Action Plan to Vitalize Education Facing the Twenty-First Century”. This plan set targets for educational reform and development until 2010, and stipulated a large increase in enrolment. In 1999, Chinese higher education institutions enrolled 4.5 million students, and by 2010, this number has increased to almost 30 million (Pretorius and Xue 2003; Shen 2010). In terms of coverage, the higher education system has gone from covering 3.5% of the cohort in 1991 to 22% in 2002, while the average institutional size quadrupled from 2,381 to 8,715 students (Li and Lin 2008). Since 2003, China has also had the world’s largest national higher education system (UNESCO 2003). 

The final large trend during the 1990s was university mergers. The higher education system was patterned after the Soviet Union, and had a large number of very specialized universities. Many of these were now compelled to join together to form large comprehensive universities (Mao, Du and Liu 2009).