This qualitative study investigates the development and governance of private universities in China. A comparative case study approach is adopted, focusing on three private universities, each with differing institutional histories and forms of governance. It draws upon thematic analysis of extensive documentation relating to private higher education (HE) governance in China and data from in-depth interviews with 31 senior managers conducted across two phases of fieldwork.

Building on an exploration of the growth of private universities in China over the last 20 years, this study examines the context and governance of private universities in China. The analysis presented makes use of three theoretical models: principal-agent, stewardship and stakeholder. The case studies show that two distinct forms of institutional governance have developed namely the supervision form and the managerial form. While external policies provide an impetus for change for each university, how key actors in institutional governance understands these policies has significant effect on how the policies are implemented. This can result in change that can be viewed as either symbolic alteration or as operational change. The internal factors that act to shape institutional governance mainly relates to the different developmental stages of the private university, the characteristics of shareholders and senior managers, and the various ways the universities respond to the external policy.

Based on the analysis of the data, a number of implications are proposed to improve the governance system of private universities. This study systematically discusses the development and governance of Chinese private universities in English which enriches the empirical study of the governance of private universities worldwide. As such it provides insight into practice for policy makers, senior managers and academics in the field of governance of private universities.

Dr. Xu Liu is an Assistant Professor of Research Center of Higher Education, Southern University of Science and Technology, Shenzhen, China. Xu received her PhD from UCL Institute of Education. Before that, she worked for many years in the field of private higher education, including education administration departments, investment entities and private colleges.

Her research now focuses on Higher Education Policy, Teaching and Education for Undergraduates. Xu has published more than 30 papers in Chinese and English journals. She has presided over 10 research projects at the national and provincial levels. Xu also services as Secretary of Higher Education Association in Shenzhen and Secretary of Shenzhen Women Science and Technology Workers Association.