Gerard Postiglione and Xiaoyu Chen

As China finds itself inching closer to becoming the world’s innovative largest economy, it looks to its universities to sustain the pace of economic growth. More than a few scholars question whether this is possible with the limited autonomy accorded by the state to China’s universities.

China already has the largest system of higher education and more research funding and scientific publications than any other nation except the United States. Top universities can recruit from Shanghai secondary schools, where students outperform their counterparts in 60 OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – countries in mathematics and science achievement.

Over the past 20 years, universities have made major changes. The ‘iron rice bowl’ of the planned economy is gone. After years of studying for free, students now pay tuition fees. Small universities have been merged to create economies of scale. Teaching is more regularly assessed. Faculty research productivity determines promotion.

Experimentation is occurring within the curriculum to drive innovation and engage students more deeply in their learning. Specialised universities have become comprehensive. Initiatives such as the 211, 985 and 2020 projects have increased the number of globally ranked universities. Incentives are attracting more overseas Chinese academics to return.

More than a thousand foreign degree programmes have been approved to operate within Chinese universities. China is establishing campuses overseas in places like the US and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, structural problems stifle progress due to the over-administration of universities. While university autonomy has gradually increased in certain areas, it is still limited by its roots in the Soviet system introduced in the 1950s. For example, the authority to confer degrees still rests with the Ministry of Education.

The challenge of a new normal growth rate demands a restructuring. Rapid expansion of higher education has produced seven to eight million graduates each year who must be absorbed into a slowing economy. Without a corresponding restructuring of universities, possibilities for needed innovation could be narrowed.

Meanwhile, there is a lively debate about how to build a Chinese model of higher education.


However, that may soon change, at least for the top tier. Peking University has a special place at the cutting edge of reform. This year marks it being ranked for the first time by Times Higher Education as the best university in China, surpassing even the University of Hong Kong which held that position for a decade.

Peking University, or PKU, is one of China’s oldest universities with a traditionally strong focus on the humanities and social sciences. Its 100-year anniversary in 1998 was marked by a declaration of support for the nation’s building of world-class universities by China’s president.

Since then, Peking University has instituted an up or out promotion system, restricted hiring of its own new doctoral graduates and has brought in international advertising for all academic posts, as well as a liberal arts style curriculum known as the Yuanpei Program. Now, it is leading again in several key ways.

Beginning this summer, Peking University will become the first university in China since 1949 to be self-accrediting, which means it can issue its own degrees. Although this may be more common overseas, it is a monumental change for a Chinese university system in which only the Ministry of Education approves the conferring of any and all degrees.

Although this reform was initially intended for leading institutions like Peking University and Tsinghua University, it is set to go nationwide. For the first time, all Chinese universities will gain the autonomy to issue their own degrees. This is a huge change and will inevitably usher in far-reaching changes and opportunities to innovate.

Another major change at PKU will be the restructuring of its academic departments. A new reform will soon convert the existing 40+ schools and departments into six faculties, which are humanities, social sciences, economics and management, natural sciences, information technology and engineering and health sciences. Schools and departments will continue to work in the way they used to while the faculties will function at a level between university and schools, being mainly in charge of academic affairs.

This reform will strengthen the knowledge base of students with a core curriculum of general education designed by the faculties, besides those specialised courses taught within schools and departments. This will make it possible for Peking University to drive the interdisciplinary nature of its offering to students.

As students take more and more responsibility for their career choices, this reform will provide them with more choice in the courses they take while at university. More influence over the design of their study programmes will help students to follow their academic interests, while also aligning their studies more closely with their career aspirations after graduation.

Meanwhile, more reform is in store for academic personnel. While PKU has had a tenure-track system since 2011, the new plan is to merge the old academic rank promotion system into the new tenure evaluation system by 2017.

All of these reforms are an indication that China’s universities are shifting their administrative structure further away from the Soviet style of the past and more towards the international mainstream of research universities.

Xiaoyu Chen is dean of the Graduate School of Education, Peking University, and professor of economics of education. Gerard Postiglione is associate dean for research of the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong, and chair professor in higher education.