Friday, October 9, 2009

Chinese Higher Education

August 8th, 2008 at 8:08pm marked not only the start of the Beijing Olympics, it heralded a new era of prosperity, openness, and entrepreneurial drive that had begun in 1978 under Premier Deng’s open-door policies. Since the decision to welcome foreign investment and shift China’s economy from a centrally planned apparatus to a more market-oriented one, the international community has closely observed the seemingly limitless potential that the world’s most populous nation has to offer. Although the G-8, WTO, and other influential organizations often concentrate on China’s manufacturing prowess and sizable market for just about all types of products and services, the under-reported strength of Beijing’s now three-decade long economic surge is predicated on concerted government efforts to overhaul and invigorate the system of higher education that once, in centuries past, was the envy of the world.

From its Confucian-rooted curriculum to its current emphasis on decentralization and internationalization, Chinese higher education has undergone considerable changes. From 1978 to 1992, educational authorities enacted and encouraged policies that sent students, faculty, and visiting scholars to Western nations, in particular the United States, for advanced studies and in-depth research. Scholars and faculty members from predominately Western nations were also invited to teach and conduct research in China. The objective of this period was to absorb as much as possible from more advanced, industrialized nations in the fields of science, technology, information systems, management, engineering, and other more quantitative-based disciplines (Huang, 2003).

From 1993 to the present, the State Education Commission, now referred to as the Ministry of Education, began adopting policies to compel overseas Chinese students, scholars, and professionals to return to the mainland. Officials touted the need to nurture domestic businesses, industries, and talent to compete with the industrialized world (Huang, 2003). Efforts were also made to internationalize the curricula by forming partnerships with foreign institutions and by promoting China as an attractive destination for undergraduate and graduate education. The internationalization of higher education in China is an integral part of Beijing’s desire to elevate the world rankings and reputation of its universities.

In 1993, a central government initiative entitled Project 211 aimed to provide vigorous financial and political support to the nation’s top 100 higher education institutions. Once that list was conceived, those universities were expected to spearhead the nation and eventually the world in groundbreaking research and advancement in an assortment of disciplines (Agelasto and Adamson, 1998). Today, premier Chinese universities such as Tsinghua University and East China Normal University are actively engaged not only in strengthening their capacity for research and effective pedagogy as it relates to teaching and learning, but in establishing partnerships with American universities such as Columbia.

Columbia University shares a long and distinguished history with China. As the home of countless former and current Chinese scholars and educators, Columbia University, and in particular, the renowned philosopher and educator John Dewey, had and continues to have an impact on the development of contemporary Chinese society.

The recently signed Memorandum of Understanding between East China Normal University and Columbia University’s Teachers College in 2009 illustrates the sustainability of the Chinese-Columbia connection. For instance, this past summer, 30 aspiring middle and high school teachers from East China Normal University were sent to Teachers College to participate in the first annual “Taste of Teaching” program that provided students with an opportunity to broaden their knowledge of what it means to teach and learn from a comparative perspective. The program included school visits, faculty lectures, and cultural excursions that were designed to widen the educational lens of the next generation of Chinese educators.

The recent collaboration between Teachers College and East China Normal University coincides with China’s push to internationalize its universities in more ways than one. From the increasing adoption of English-based textbooks to the active recruitment of foreign faculty and students, elite Chinese universities, with the unyielding support of a nation that places immeasurable value on higher education, have begun the climb to, once again, position themselves among the very best of higher education providers.


1. Huang, Futao (2003). Policy and Practice of the Internationalization of Higher Education in China. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7(3), 225-240.

2. Agelasto, Michael., Adamson, Bob. (1998). Higher Education in Post-Mao China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

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