Zhou Li

Corning Incorporated Corporate Fellow

Arts & Sciences: Chemistry | PhD


Cohort 2006


Graduated 2011

Partner University:

Fudan University


Career: Senior Polymer Chemist | Eastman Chemical Company | Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, USA

Scholar Highlights

The Future of Higher Education in China

Over the past 30 years, the world has seen the rapid change of China’s economy. However, higher education in China has not kept up. As a result, it is one of the “three new burdens” in China – one of three main targets of growing public discontent, with the other two being health care and housing.

China’s current higher education system has grown out of an attempt starting in 1952 to replicate the Soviet model. In this approach, universities had little autonomy. National instructional plans were implemented in all colleges and universities such that the higher education system would closely serve the manpower needs of the country. Students were assigned to specific majors and trained as specialists in those fields so that they could be sent to targeted positions in the labor force after graduation. Before they even were enrolled in universities, students’ entire plan of study had already been set up. The only thing they needed to do was to follow the way laid out for them.

The Soviet model worked reasonably well for a centrally planned economy, but it is incompatible with the market oriented economy. Nowadays, the market provides students with major opportunities in China’s economy, and the government can no longer guarantee future jobs for them. However, the government continues to play an overwhelming role in many aspects of the higher education system. For instance, it controls enrollments, departmental structure, course syllabi, and the allocation of investment in education.

Because department structures typically are not shaped by market forces, some students from “cold” majors find it difficult to get jobs. What they learned is not welcomed by the job market. Problems are exacerbated by the fact that students have to determine their majors at the beginning of their college life, a time when most of them know little about their career plans. Departmental structure is so rigid that it is not easy for students to change their majors if they no longer like them.

There are also problems with injustice and inequalities in higher education. Recruitment is carried out somewhat independently in each province, resulting in varying admission standards for students attending the same university. If a province receives an increased recruitment allocation from a university, students from that province may have better chances of being accepted by that institution than will those from other regions.

The fundamental problem is that the distribution of higher education institutions is unequal. Most institutions, especially prestigious universities, are located in well developed regions like Beijing and Shanghai, and these provinces and municipalities receive higher recruitment allocations from these universities, leading to disparities among provinces in educational opportunity. For example, although the number of the high school graduates of Henan Province is 8 times higher than that of Beijing, the recruitment allocation Henan receives from Peking University has been about one fourth of that given to Beijing. Students in Henan Province have to work much harder to win a ticket to their dream school simply because they were not born in the right place. Some students may even change their official permanent residence so that they can take the exam in a province that offers easier admission to good universities.

The conflict between size and quality of education is another issue people have begun to think about. China launched an expansion of higher education in 1998. Between then and 2005, the number of students in regular higher education institutions increased 500%. However, developing higher education is a long term social project that cannot be accomplished in short time, and with this vast expansion, it has been difficult to maintain quality. Consider, for example, that the number of the teaching staff increased only 137% from 1998 to 2005, which led to a remarkable increase in student-teacher ratios. The facilities in the universities also could not support the dramatic expansion in student numbers. As a result, during finals week, students have to get up very early and wait in a queue outside the library if they plan to study there. There are simply far too few seats compared to the student size.

It should be pointed out that the proportion of young people in higher education in China is still relatively small compared to America. In the end, however, a balance between size and quality must be found in the expansion of higher education for its development to be healthy.

Education is the key to the future of a country. With the success of economic development after the reforms of the late 1970s in China, now is the time for reform in higher education.

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