Education in East Asia
Education in East Asia

Pei-tseng Jenny Hsieh

Pei-tseng Jenny Hsieh is a researcher in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, UK. She has been an education consultant in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and India. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2013




Related Content

China: An Overview

DOI: 10.5040/9781472544452.ch-001
Page Range: 1–28

The rise of China as an important player in international economic competition and global politics over recent decades appears to have come as a surprise to the world. Such surprise is often accompanied by overestimations or underestimations of China’s actual capabilities. A strong aspiration for the development has long been a goal of the Chinese government and people. This has involved modernization and industrialization of educational, scientific and technological capacity, and China has impressive records of policy intent, planning and resource commitment for meeting such goals. This chapter provides an overview of education development in modern China. Based on a discussion of selected legacies that have cast a profound influence on Chinese education today, this study describes and analyzes key trends and challenges of education development in China in 1990–2010, then discusses the main features of China’s National Outline for Medium and Long Term Educational Reform and Development (2010–20).

Selected Legacies of Chinese Education

This section outlines the historical development of the Chinese education system over the twentieth century, and discusses three diverse traditions that shape Chinese education systems today. Those three forces have come together with creative tensions that have yet to be fully reconciled (Zhong, 2005). The first tradition is that of indigenous Chinese learning based on the thinking of Confucius and the millennia-old Mandarin system. The second tradition is an amalgam of modern Western-influenced education systems developed in China during the 1900s to the 1940s, and the third tradition is that of the Soviet-inspired system in the 1950s to 1960s. The influence of each of the three traditions can still be seen in China today, and have become caught up in the more recent influences of international interaction and globalization.

The legacy of Confucianism and the Mandarin system

If one is to characterize in one word the Chinese way of education for the last two millennia, the word would be ‘Confucius’ (about 551bc–479bc). No other individual in Chinese history has so deeply influenced the life and thought of his people, as a teacher, an educationist, a philosopher, a political theorist and creative interpreter of the ancient culture, and as a moulder of the Chinese character.

For Confucianism, since the time of its general acceptance, has been more than a creed to be pressed or rejected; it has become an inseparable part of the society and thought of the nation as a whole. It is fundamental to what it means to be a Chinese, as the Confucian classics are not the canon of a particular sect but the literary heritage of a whole people (De Bary et al., 1960, p. 15).

In the contemporary world, the global phenomena of the higher achievement of Asian students in schools and universities has generated much scholarly interest. Several studies have discovered that Confucian values on respect for education and learning are underpinning the diligence and motivation of such students (Volet & Remshaw, 1996; Flynn, 1991; Kim, 1988). These cultural values – such as the educatability of all, perfectibility for all, lifelong learning, learning through effort and willpower, and reciprocity of teaching and learning – all provide an intrinsic motivation for learning for self-realization (Oh, 2001).

If one is to characterize in one word the Chinese way of education today, the word would be ‘Gaokao’, meaning national entrance examination to higher education. No other examination in Chinese society today has so deeply influenced the life and thought of students, parents, teachers, schools and universities. It is a mechanism to select or ‘screen’ people for higher learning, to safeguard equity and promote social mobility, to steer reforms in both general education before Gaokao and higher education and continuing education afterwards; to underpin a Gaokao economy of private tuition in the marketplace, and as a moulder of the character of Chinese intellectuals. Not surprisingly, of course, the idea of Gaokao has a Confucian underpinning, a 1300-year-long tradition of the Mandarin system of the civil service examination.

From year 605, in the Sui Dynasty, until 1905, the Confucian thinking of the education–state relationship was institutionalized through the Mandarin system, a civil servant recruitment examination, and its supporting education system that prepared students for that examination. This examination was a holistic educational and social mechanism for the cultivation, selection and recruitment of talents, social reproduction, and mobilization and distribution of scarce resources of status, power and wealth (Wu, 2002; Jin, 1990). It was hence an embodiment of Confucian thinking on education, learning and the ideal world governed by the scholars. The Mandarin system served to cultivate and integrate intellectual resources, and to maintain the socio-cultural ecological equilibrium of traditional Chinese society.

The extent and significance of social mobility through the Mandarin examinations have occasioned sustained debate both in the past (He, 1962; Kracke, 1957; Cressey, 1931) and in more recent years (Elman, 2000; Liu, 2002; He, 2009). In general, the meritocratic Mandarin system created a sustainable and inclusive social metabolic mechanism between the masses and the well-educated group, as well as within the educated group. Therefore human intelligence, the essence of social development, could be effectively identified and absorbed into the leadership with a sustainable supply of new blood.

Second, though only a small proportion of people could obtain the status and privileges bestowed by the Mandarin examinations, a far larger proportion of the population actually obtained significant education at various levels in attempting the process (Liu, 1996). Consequently there was a powerful incentive for learning and a respect for education as well as esteem for scholars and intellectuals. The result was a relative ‘mass’ education infrastructure throughout the country where people could pursue studies in their local community.

Third, the highly uniform education and examination systems disseminated relatively uniform social values, the Confucian ideology, which in turn reinforced the sustainability of the Mandarin system for over a millennium. Confucian intellectuals selected by the Mandarin system functioned in politics, in governing and managing family and society at all levels, in promoting filial respect and cultural inheritance, and in supporting educational and academic systems as a whole.

The Mandarin system was not without its problems, however. The highly uniform culture was accompanied by rigidity and conservatism. The curriculum became too narrow and too examination-oriented, and it tended not to encourage creativity but rather rote learning and uncritical thinking. It is possible that the system did not select the talent but only the most skilled in passing examinations (Miyazaki, 1981). In contrast to the mobile and open-structured society it underpinned, the Mandarin system in its last stages turned into a mental shackle for ideological submission. It was therefore not surprising that the gentry-literati produced by the Mandarin system and related education system collapsed in the face of the national crisis and challenge of modernization at the turn of the twentieth century.

The legacy of Western-influenced education in China

The emergence of Western-influenced education in China began in the late nineteenth century up to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. It was a turbulent half-century of military and economic Western and Japanese aggression in China, plus continuous civil wars and socio-political disorder. This encouraged increasing rigidity in the Mandarin system, but also substantial growth in China’s contact with Western learning. It was during this period that modern education in China proliferated in varied forms and with many types of foreign influence and participation (Sun, 1986). This led to the growth of a modern national system of education, of urban public informal education through the press, of Chinese students studying abroad, of the formal education of women, of a widespread functional literacy among the common people, and of the founding of educational institutions and associations as seedbeds of reform and revolution (Yang, 2004; Li, 1997; Borthwick, 1983).

The educational goal of this period was how to create the academic institutions needed for modernity, reconciling the Chinese and Western cultural traditions both intellectually and institutionally. There was a wide consensus among different interest groups that education was the way to save the nation from Western aggression and colonization (Rankin, 1971). From 1911 to 1927 China was characterized as a land of warlords with constant conflict between them. As a result, diverse cultures and movements flourished and there was a shift from the Japanese to German and French models of education. The higher education sector saw a growth in universities, university autonomy and academic freedom. As Japanese aggression grew, more Chinese turned towards Europe and the United States for inspiration. While the Japanese model laid more stress on primary and secondary schooling, the European-based models had shifted the focus to the higher education sector.

The USA soon became China’s new authoritative reference between the 1920s and 1940s. In 1922, China adopted the American 6-3-3-4 education system which is still in use in China today. Dewey’s pragmatism and experimentalism became a strong influence on China’s educational policy and practice during this period (Yuan, 2001). The American influence was further strengthened by a growing number of Chinese students and scholars returning from the USA, who formed a central force in Chinese education (Wang, 1966). In higher education, China replaced the French model of a two-tier system with the American three-tier system, comprising the university, liberal college and specialist college, replaced collegiate governance with presidential governance, introduced the credit system, broadened specialized curricula into generalized and individualized curricula, and created a national network of specialist colleges, especially technical schools (Li, 1997).

In 1932 the Nationalist government commissioned the League of Nations’ Mission Educational Experts with a comprehensive consultation of Chinese education at the time. Interestingly, many of the issues discussed in the consultation, The Reorganisation of Education in China (1932), are still relevant today: namely, elite–mass distinctions, urban–rural and regional disparities, and foreign borrowing and adaptation.

The legacy of Soviet higher education in China

Foreign influence on Chinese education culminated in a new and more penetrating mode after the founding of the People’s Republic China on 1 October 1949. At that time China was a war-worn, backward, predominantly rural state isolated from most of the world. The Chinese Communist Party recognized that the key priorities in nation-building were political consolidation and rapid industrialization through ‘learning from the Soviet Union’.

The rationale was that since the best of Western science and technology had already been absorbed by the Russians, the quickest and best way was to take the distilled essence directly from the Soviet Union. And since education and industry are the main social institutions necessary for the application of science and technology, their organisation and management were also reshaped in the Soviet mould. (Pepper, 1987, p. 197)

Those most directly responsible for establishing a Soviet system in China involved 10,000 or more Soviet ‘experts’ who served in China during the 1950s, including some 700 who worked in higher education. Moreover, there were also more than 30,000 Chinese students, academics and professionals who went to the Soviet Union for study and training during the same period (Shen, 2009).

The Soviet-inspired education reconstruction in the 1950s revolved around wholesale transplantation of the Soviet system of institutional structure, curriculum content and job assignment. Then four decades later, in the 1990s, the same route, though in the opposite direction, was taken to reverse that restructuring. However, back in the 1950s the Soviet restructuring of Chinese education proved effective in overcoming China’s serious personnel shortages in many key areas while increasing and widening educational opportunities (Yu, 1994).

A criticism common to all types of educational borrowing is that the model system would itself soon be in a state of transition. After the Sino-Soviet split in 1953, the Soviet model soon fell into disrepute in China. This was partly because the Chinese authorities tried to regain their balance after leaning so heavily ‘to one side’, and partly because the Soviet Union itself experienced important changes when the ‘Stalinist Model’ in education and in politics and economy at large were discarded after Stalin’s death in 1953.

A principal criticism of Soviet education was against the narrow specialization of undergraduate programmes, especially in engineering. Such narrow specialization was only beneficial in the short term. It then became increasingly dysfunctional when a wider range of integrated skills and technologies were needed after the early stage of industrialization.

The success of Soviet engineering education was accompanied by serious neglect of the humanities and social sciences, which were also narrowly restructured on ideological grounds. Politics, sociology, psychology and anthropology faculties were closed, finance and economics faculties were downsized, and comprehensive universities were disintegrated and severely weakened. The number of comprehensive universities dropped from 49 in 1949 to 13 in 1953, and the proportion of enrolment in the arts dropped from 33.1 per cent in 1949 to 14.9 per cent in 1953, despite the fact that the total enrolment in higher education almost doubled during the same period (Yang, 1995).

The destruction of comprehensive universities had a far-reaching, negative impact on the nature, function and prospect of Chinese education. From the mid-1980s, China began to reconstruct her comprehensive universities through institutional rationalization and reinstallation of arts faculties with rapid enrolment expansion and large-scale investment. Such remedial efforts are indeed necessary, but the task is complex and long and involves much more than capital investment and political will.

It is worth noting that despite the overall ‘mechanical copying’ of the Soviet system, China managed to revive its unique tradition, the Mandarin examination system, which was reintroduced in 1952 in a ‘modern guise’ of national college entrance examinations, or Gaokao:

The two [the Chinese and the Soviet] had come together most effectively in the college entrance examinations, which merged Soviet-style economic and personnel planning with the old Chinese selection procedure to create a new unified enrolment and job assignment mechanism far more rigid than the Soviet counterpart. But this mechanism helped ensure that the restructured tertiary system with its newly designated prestige categories in the applied sciences would overcome inherited intellectual priorities to produce the talent needed for economic development. The mechanism would also go on to become an established feature of Chinese higher education. Restored with alacrity after each of the two massive irregular interruptions[1] to follow. (Pepper, 1996, p. 191)

Historical repetitions are abundant in Chinese higher education. During the first half of the twentieth century the reforms and reconstructions of higher education were generally aiming for China’s modernization, but ideological agendas for a specific type of power reconstruction played a more determining role. The task of development was urgent, but the old and new regimes of China seemed to lack preparedness. Hence a foreign model was uncritically imitated by China through a top-down, wholesale approach, while the old model was discarded altogether. Soon the foreign model proved inappropriate, so another new model was introduced. But whatever the nature of the Western models, they were largely operated as a crude transplant in China. During this process, the Confucian and mandarin traditions managed to reproduce themselves under various modern guises, and the problems of the old and new coexisted and mutually reinforced one another.

Foreign educational borrowing in China resumed in the mid-1980s but it remained piecemeal. Contemporary concerns in Chinese education have been with regaining some connection with lessons and experience from the pre-1949 period: how to learn from both the traditional Chinese and latest international, and especially Western, education systems; how to maintain and promote scholarship in the face of financial crisis and marketization; how to balance the elite orientation of key schools while expanding the overall enrolment; how to promote the use of communication and information technology; and how to extend the benefit of higher education to the wider society.

Key Trends in Chinese Education in 1990–2010

China has developed the largest educational system in terms of student enrolment in the world. Entering the twenty-first century China has set itself the goal to transform the Chinese education sector from a big system to a strong system. Chinese education over the past two decades experienced increasing political commitment and funding resources available for a decreasing scale of school-age population. As a result, education attainment and participation achieved unprecedented improvement. This section presents characteristics of the Chinese education systems between 1990 and 2010 in terms of outstanding progress in demographic change, funding, attainment and participation.

Marco demographic and economic trends

As a country with the largest population in the world, China has managed to reduce its population growth under the one-child policy over the past three decades. As a result, while the total population continued to expand at a decelerating rate from 1.16 billion in 1990 to 1.34 billion in 2010, the scale of the school-age 0–14 cohort shrank by about one-third, from 316.6 million (22.7 per cent of the total population) in 1990 to 222.6 million (16.6 per cent of the total population) in 2010 (NSBC, 2011). In contrast, China’s labour force of age 15–64 continued to grow in 1990–2010, presenting a ‘population surplus’. As a result, the child-age dependency rate went down from 44.5 per cent to 22.3 per cent, signifying a larger labour-active population supporting a smaller dependent youth population. This reflects the larger picture of China’s aging population which would not be welcome in the long run. Nonetheless, as far as formal education is concerned, it is a good sign that a smaller school-age population coupled with rising education capacity has led to a rapid increase and widening of education participation.

In the same period, as a country with the most rapid economic growth in the world, with double-digit average annual growth rate, China managed to achieve a twentyfold growth in terms of both gross domestic product (GDP) and GPD per capital. In 1990–2010, China’s GDP rose from ¥1871.83 billion to ¥40,326 billion, and GDP per capita from ¥1,644 to ¥29,992. This means that China has generated a growing pool of resources available for education investment, both public and private, in the context of rising demand for boosting education capacity (NBSC, 2011).

Education expenditure

With a booming economy, China’s education expenditure also soared since entering the twenty-first century (Figure 1.1). In 2000–10, China’s total

Figure 1.1. Public education expenditure in China, 2000–10 Source: MOE (2001–11).

education expenditure rose five times, from ¥384.91 billion (RMB yuan) to 1956.19 billion, while the public education expenditure rose at a faster rate of 6.4 times, from ¥22.8 billion in 2000 to ¥146.7 billion in 2010. It is worth noting that China’s public education expenditure, as a proportion of GDP (per cent), fell in the first half of the decade to hit 2.79 per cent in 2004 before resuming a steady rise, reaching 3.66 per cent in 2010. It is projected to reach 4 per cent in 2012, with the public education expenditure budget of ¥2198.46 billion (Wen, 2012).

From the international perspective, China’s attainment of this 4 per cent target in 2012 seems not to be a breakthrough, because in 2007 the OECD average level of public education expenditure as a proportion of GDP had already reached 4.8 per cent, with the USA at 5.0 per cent, the UK, 5.2 per cent, Brazil, 5.2 per cent, and Russian Federation, 6.0 per cent (OECD, 2010a). However, in terms of China’s own preformance, reaching the 4 per cent target registers a milestone in education development. This is because the Chinese central government had set the 4 per cent goal by 2000 as early as 1993 in China’s Guidelines of Education Reform and Development, before making two long decades of effort to achieve it. The difficulty of meeting this goal reflects the fact that China has marked regional and local disparities in economic and educational capacity ( Outlook Weekly, 2011). Therefore statistics in national average terms are useful to make macro-level international comparisons but less so in terms of understanding the actual situation in China’s many different regions.

Education attainment

China’s average years of schooling of the age 25+ population grew by 2.7 years, from 4.85 to 7.55, in 1990–2010, representing a growth of 55.7 per cent. This trend is due to the expansion of upper-secondary education as well as that of tertiary education (Figure 1.2). The female age 25+ population in comparison has a lower level of average years of schooling, which rose from 4.42 to 6.87 in the same period. This signifies that China’s adult male–female gap in education attainment widened in 1990–2010 from 0.86 years to 1.36 years of schooling (Barro-Lee Data set, 2011).

The two decades of 1990–2010 also witnessed a substantial reduction of illiteracy through the combined efforts the ‘two basics’: compulsory education and adult literacy education. This trend was accompanied by demographic change as the older, less-educated generations are passing away. China’s illiteracy rate for the age 15+ population fell from 15.88 per cent in1990 to 6.72 per cent in 2000, and then to 4.08 per cent in 2010, signifying that China has 125 million fewer illiterate people over two decades (NSBC, 2011). However, in 2010 China still had over 50 million illiterate people, the majority of them being adult females living in poor and remote areas. According to the Guidelines of China’s Female Development (2011–2020) (State Council, 2011), China aims to reduce illiteracy in the 15–50 age range female population to less than 2 per cent by 2020.

Outstanding progress in secondary and tertiary education in China is well observed in terms of highest education qualifications obtained per 100,000 inhabitants. In China in 1990–2010, people with lower or upper secondary education qualifications almost doubled while people with tertiary education qualifications grew over sixfold (NSBC, 2011).

China is among an increasing number of countries that aim for universal participation in secondary education (UNESCO, 2011). A World Bank study has showed that the social returns[2] on investment in school education are greater than in higher education regardless of the income level of the country (Psacharopoulos and Patrinos, 2002).

The above indicators of educational attainment summarize the rising level of education of the entire adult population in China and reflect the improved structure and performance of the education system and the growing capacity and quality of human capital which is one of the main determinants of economic growth in China.

Education participation

The improvement in education attainment in China reflects dramatic enrolment expansion over the past two decades. For the primary and lower secondary levels, China’s ratios lie above 90 per cent, which means, according to UNESCO’s standards, that the country is approaching universal access for these particular levels.[3] China’s gross enrolment rate at the primary level remained higher than 100 per cent in 2000–10, which can be explained by late entrance and grade repetition.

The gross enrolment ratio at upper secondary level almost doubled, from 38 per cent to 71.3 per cent, while that of the tertiary sector more than tripled from, 8 per cent to 26 per cent (Figure 1.2). However, from the international perspective such levels of participation were still low compared to the most developed countries.

China’s enrolment in regular undergraduate programmes has soared since 1999. In 2002, China passed the threshold of 15 per cent of the 18–22-year-old population enrolled in tertiary education (Figure 1.3). This threshold is generally considered to be a move away from an elite system into a mass system of tertiary education (Trow, 1973). China’s new enrolment in regular undergraduate programmes achieved an elevenfold expansion in 1990–2010, and the total tertiary enrolment reached 31.05 million in 2010. Looking to the future, China has set the goal to achieve a 40 per cent tertiary gross enrolment rate by 2020. Hence, despite the fact that the cohort of people aged 18–22 will shrink substantially, the numbers of tertiary graduates will be growing in the next decade, though at a slower rate than over the last decade.

With regard to choices of pathways from upper secondary to tertiary education, Chinese students exhibited roughly equal preference for general and

Figure 1.2. Gross enrolment ratio by level of education in China, 2000–10 Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) (2012).

Figure 1.3. Regular undergraduate enrolment in China, 1990–2010 (Thousands) Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China (1991–2011).

vocational education. In 2010, there were 17 million students in upper secondary education in China, comprising 49 per cent in the general route and 51 per cent in the vocational route. On the other hand there is a much stronger preference for technical studies at tertiary level: 41.6 per cent of Chinese students in tertiary education were enrolled in science and engineering in 2010, while 20.5 per cent were enrolled in management and business-related studies (NBSC, 2011).

From the international perspective, China over the past decade has produced far more graduates in natural and applied sciences, and especially engineering, than any other country in the world (OECD, 2010a). In 2008, the whole world produced 2 million first university degrees in engineering and 1.7 million in natural sciences, while China’s share in the two categories were 34 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. This is in contrast to the USA figures of 4 per cent and 10 per cent respectively, and the EU’s 17 per cent and 18 per cent respectively (OECD, 2010b).

This brief overview of the key trends in Chinese education in 1990–2010 shows that China has made substantial development in education. However, beyond the numbers lies the question of quality of education and its outcomes. The following section will outline the key challenges faced by education in China.

Key Challenges for Chinese Education, 1990–2010

The exponential growth in Chinese education, in association with economic and social transformation and economic transition, comes with a number of challenges for the education system. These challenges are faced by policy-makers at national and regional level as well as educational institutions themselves, and are affecting the quality and equity of educational outcomes. Ongoing transformations of the education system are not only driven by demographic change, labour market demand and socioeconomic pressure within China, but also by the increasing competitive ‘race for talent’ across the world (Ulicna et al., 2011). Current education reforms in China aim at making effective use of increased public budgets in education and eventually the need to enhance quality and safeguard equity.

General education

Developing a competence-based approach

China’s political commitment to moving from a knowledge-based, examination-oriented education system towards a competence-based system dates back to the 1990s (State Council, 1993, 1999). From the late 1990s, China embarked on a new round of systematic national curriculum reform that has lasted to the present day. This curriculum reform was designed to move away from learning based on memorization of subject-specific knowledge towards the type of learning that encourages the holistic development of students for the twenty-first century (Yan and Ehrich 2009). A key feature of this reform is replacing a common set of national textbooks for the national curriculum. Instead, regional and local government and individual schools are given the autonomy to choose their own textbooks. The objectives, structure, content, delivery, assessment and management of this new curricular approach has adopted many internationally comparable ideas that are at the forefront of educational thinking.

In line with this reform, Gaokao, or the National Entrance Examination to Colleges and Universities, has also undergone reform in both structure and content to focus more on testing problem-solving capacity. Education in China has long been criticized for its narrow focus on examination content and examination skills at the expanse of fostering creativity, critical thinking and vocational skills (Zhang and Zhao, 2005; World Bank, 1999). This is because progression in the Chinese education system from as early as kindergarten through to postgraduate education is still largely determined by strongly competitive examinations. Education is therefore still dominated by examinations. As a result, the Chinese teaching style is largely teacher-centred, sometimes described as a ‘spoon-feed model’ – and this applies also to different levels of education (Wang and Morgan, 2009). Learning is still often limited to listening to lectures, reading and learning by heart. Curricula, tests and examinations concentrate on the knowledge of facts. Topics are taught one by one, with a relatively narrow scope, often at the expense of interdisciplinary implications, soft skills, complex work processes or the economic, social and environmental context of professional work. Again, such contemporary characteristics of Chinese education are deeply rooted in long Confucian traditions.

China’s national curriculum reform is a long-term process. It needs to embrace teacher development, especially in terms of updating teaching methods and the concepts of student competences and skills required in the twenty-first century. At the same time, China is actively learning from international experience and is quickly building up its capacity to monitor student achievement from local to national level. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009 was China’s debut in international standardized testing. Only Shanghai (in fact about 5,100 15-year-olds chosen as a representative cross-section of students of the city), participated in PISA (SAES, 2010). The result was that Shanghai outscored all other counterparts in more than 60 countries and regions across the world, in reading as well as in mathematics and science. A recent OECD study shows that Shanghai’s success in PISA is due to a series of educational innovations:

… the [Shanghai] government’s abandonment of a system built around ‘key schools’ for a small elite and its development of a more inclusive system in which all students are expected to perform at high levels; greatly raising teacher pay and upgrading teacher standards and teacher education; reducing the emphasis on rote learning and increasing the emphasis on deep understanding; the ability to apply knowledge to solving new problems and the ability to think creatively. All of these are reflected in deep reforms to the curriculum and examinations. These changes have been accompanied by greater curricular choice for students and more latitude for local authorities to decide on examination content, which in turn is loosening the constraints on curriculum and instruction. (OECD, 2010b, p. 83)

However, Shanghai is by no means representative of all of China. Located in the most developed region in China, Shanghai is an industrial and financial power-house and a magnet for the best talents in the country. Shanghai’s 20 million residents enjoy direct access to some of the nation’s best schools and universities located in that city. To a large extent, Shanghai exhibits the way forward for reform and development in Chinese education as a whole. However, the privileged conditions that Shanghai enjoys are beyond the reach of the majority of Chinese regions except for a small number of powerful cities. A main challenge is how to enable the less developed parts of China to participate in innovations to enhance both quality and equity in education. There are several key issues to be faced in ensuring equity in opportunity and achievement.

  • A main challenge to educational equity in China concerns the interconnected issues of access to upper secondary education and to tertiary education. Education institutions from kindergartens to universities in China are highly hierarchical in terms of academic merits, financial resources, and social and cultural capital. Key upper secondary schools and key universities in China have become increasingly interdependent on each other and more influential in society since the late 1990s. This is mainly due to China’s efforts towards the massification of tertiary education and building towards more world-class universities.

  • Competence-based education is often provided by ‘key schools’ in China. Access to key schools is closely related to school choice mechanisms and associated family expenditure. This is putting significant financial burdens on working-class families. The recent decade has seen a flourishing marketplace with intensified competition for places in secondary and, more recently, even in primary and pre-primary schools in urban China (Yang, 2006). Key schools have built up an ‘education economy’ by attracting talented and/or rich students from other cities or provinces, leaving students in local catchment areas in growing competition for already limited places. This is the Chinese version of market-oriented school choice policies in Western nations, but is even more thoroughgoing, creating growing disparities and tensions (Zhong, 2005). This creates inequality in education expenditure as well as gaps in provision as certain children whose parents cannot afford such school choice fees are left behind (Wu, 2009; Bray, 2009). Moreover, a major criticism of the students in key schools is that they are made into a distinctive elite, most of which tend to lose touch with the rest of the youth in the same age group and society at large (Zang, 2001).

  • In consequence, equal access to tertiary education is preconditioned by access to key schools at secondary down to pre-primary stages. Students from high-income families, from families where parents have received at least upper secondary education, and from urban areas are over-represented among higher education students, while young women from rural areas are under-represented (Huang, 2005). It is also alarming to note that there are fewer students from rural areas participating in leading universities and in higher education in general.

Moreover, China also faces the challenge to increase the attainment of upper secondary education qualifications. In terms of participation, the progression rate from lower to upper secondary schools in China in 2009 was 85.6 per cent, signifying an influx of at least 2.67 million young people into the labour market with only lower secondary education qualifications (NBSC, 2010). China has set a goal to provide universal access (90 per cent) to upper secondary education by 2020. The main strategies to achieve this goal involve expanding and diversifying both general and vocational upper secondary education and strengthening the provision of vocational education in general schools.

Vocational education and training

Enhancing attractiveness and connecting tertiary education

As Chinese education is dominated by the academic-oriented Gaokao system, vocation education today, as well as in the past, has a poor image in China. It is difficult to recruit students. Well performing students will opt for the general pathway. Vocational education is regarded as a last resort for those who cannot make their way to higher levels of general education. In this context, maintaining and even increasing the interest and morale of young people in vocational learning pathways is one of the challenges of vocational education in China. As China has developed into a ‘world factory’ over the past two decades, there is an increasing need to equip people with medium-level qualifications. Moreover, there are also shortages of qualified blue-collar workers in a number of sectors because a growing number of elementary occupations tend to require medium-level qualifications. In this sense, having a vocational qualification in a number of fields is a better guarantee for access to the labour market than having only a general education qualification or incomplete higher education.

As part of the attractiveness of vocational education, it is important to ensure that young people who opt for these pathways are able to continue their studies in higher education if they wish to do so. Otherwise they may prefer general education pathways that do not constitute a termination of formal education.

Vocational colleges are new to the Chinese labour market even today. The vocational tertiary sector began with 120 institutions across China in the 1980s. The 1990s has witnessed increasing awareness and willingness to support the development of vocational colleges, and the 2000s has seen dramatic growth in the scale of vocational education both in terms of its enrolment and the number of institutions. In this way China’s tertiary education has quickly become a bipartite system comprising two roughly equal halves of general and vocational sub-sectors. For example, in 2005 China had 1091 vocational tertiary colleges, representing 60.9 per cent of tertiary education institutions. New and total enrolment in vocational tertiary education reached 5 million and 15.6 million respectively, representing 53.1 per cent and 45.7 per cent respectively of total regular undergraduate education (MOE, 2006).

The expansion in vocational tertiary education is driven by both labour market demand and innovations in student recruitment mechanisms to create flexible and transparent pathways into vocational tertiary education from both general and vocational secondary education. China began to explore alternative pathways into tertiary vocational education besides Gaokao since the second half of the 2000s. In 2007 China first allowed four provinces in eastern and southern China to pilot their own province-wide entrance examinations, and only eight selected national key vocational colleges in those regions could recruit students based on new types of entrance examinations. In 2010, the pilot project expanded to provide 25,505 places in 73 vocational colleges in China (XinhuaNet, 2010a). In scale it only touched a tiny fraction (1 per cent) of new enrolment in vocational tertiary education. However, the vocational colleges involved represent the top institutions in their fields and are the future direction of vocational education reform and development in China.

The new examinations focus on vocational and technical aspects of knowledge and skills are outside the scope of Gaokao. They have less academic content and lower academic standards. In the new examinations the student chooses one of 13 specialized examinations such as business and management, building sciences, or agriculture, in addition to general subjects such as Chinese, English and mathematics. In comparison, Gaokao just has two categories, arts and sciences, in addition to general subjects. So far the students can only apply for those selected vocational colleges within their own province, but if they do not obtain an offer they can still opt to take Gaokao and use its scores to apply for all other vocational colleges in China.

Moreover, a growing number of vocational colleges have also obtained permission from regional governments to recruit students directly from vocational secondary schools and adult learners already in employment through institutional-based examinations. Looking into the future, many regions are using their autonomy and creativity to design new policies such as open enrolment to vocational tertiary education available for all people with general or vocational upper secondary qualifications ( China Education Daily, 2012).

At present, however, general upper secondary schools and Gaokao still form the main pathway to both academic and vocational tertiary education. In this context, the students applying for vocational colleges are still those who performed poorly in Gaokao, because with higher scores they may well apply directly to general universities or colleges. Therefore a main challenge here is that the general upper secondary schools are under increasing pressure to diversify their curriculum and provide more vocational preparation for students to be admitted into vocational colleges.

Teacher quality is another issue which undermines the attractiveness of vocational education in China. Vocational schools and colleges require teachers to have double competences in both teaching and professional expertise and experience in industry. Such teachers are in serious shortage in China (MOE, 2011a). It is currently difficult for good teachers to develop from within the vocational education sector. At the same time the different orientation of the general education system means that its graduates are unsuitable to teach in vocational schools and colleges, of which they themselves have little personal experience. The income and social status of vocational schools make its teaching posts relatively unattractive.

Among the latest responses to such teacher shortages, the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Finance of China jointly put forward a comprehensive Plan to Enhance the Competence of Teachers in Vocational Education in 2011 (MOE, 2011b). The plan set the key tasks as a) to establish a national network of centres of excellence for teacher education and training for vocational education in both vocational colleges and enterprises; b) to invest in the infrastructure of those centres; c) to develop 100 sets of innovative undergraduate-level teacher education programmes targeted at vocational education (including developing educational plans, core curricula and related textbooks and learning materials); d) to provide nationwide professional upgrades for 450,000 in 2011–15; e) and to provide fellowships for 20,000 young teachers to have short-term working experience in industry and personnel from industry to teach in vocational institutions. The implementation of the plan was backed up by strong political commitment, a large sum of concentrated investment over the first five-year phase, systematic action plans and a series of mutually supported policies. As a first step, in June 2012 China launched the first group of such national centres in 33 vocational colleges and two large-scale enterprises (MOE, 2012). It remains a challenge to develop more industry-based national teacher development centres, and align those centres with corresponding centres in vocational colleges and also with other types of government-accredited, industrial-based national centres, such as national innovation centres and enterprise technology development centres.

Higher education

Creating excellence by greater autonomy and strengthening quality

The quantitative growth of Chinese higher education has raised a quality issue. As more and more students are recruited to universities, there is a concern that lower standards will be applied, allowing less able students to enter. The ability of universities to maintain their quality standards while absorbing so many students is seen as problematical. Universities have experienced difficulties with recruiting qualified professors and the average class size has been increasing accordingly. The quality issue has been taken on board by the Chinese government, as illustrated by the Higher Education Teaching and Learning Quality and Reform Project launched by the MOE in 2003 and which will last until 2020.

In China, the American model of university is being adopted in research-intensive universities and research-teaching universities. The focus here is on research rather than teaching, and it has seen increasing drawbacks in terms of compromising teaching quality (Shi and Englert, 2008). At the same time the quest for world-class status goes hand in hand with the internationalization of Chinese higher education. Top universities have concentrated their efforts on attracting talents, especially from overseas, as well as accelerating the international mobility of their students and scholars (Ulcina et al., 2011).

Another major challenge in Chinese higher education is institutional autonomy (XinhuaNet, 2010b). Although the Chinese higher education system had been restructured towards greater autonomy in the 1990s, the Chinese Ministry of Education is still responsible for the direct administration of more than 70 key universities which restricts the autonomy of institutions. In addition, the government is responsible for the accreditation of academic programmes and for the organization of a large number of key research projects leading to the delivery of awards. These are used as a basis for the promotion of scholars, so universities have strong incentives to maintain good relationships with government officials. Moreover, internally, university autonomy is closely related to academic freedom. In many universities and colleges in China, the balance between faculties and administrative staff tend not to favour the academic community (Ngok, 2008). Key decisions regarding the admission of students, curricula, content of the examinations, promotion of academic staff and allocation of resources all lie in the hands of non-academic staff or of professors with senior administrative titles.

China’s bid to build world-class universities began in 1998, at the centennial celebration of Peking University, when the Chinese government initiated Project 985. This project concentrated an unprecedentedly large amount of funding from central and regional government to strengthen the best of China’s national research universities, with the aim of building world-class excellence (Zhong, 2010).

In 1998–2011, the two phrases of Project 985 provided a concentrated investment of ¥30 billion to 39 of China’s leading universities. There are three tiers of excellence with matched levels of funding support in Project 985: a) world-class status – Peking University and Tsinghua University, each with ¥1.8 billion from the MOE; b) first class in China, and world renowned – seven universities, each with ¥0.9 to ¥1.4 billion from both the MOE and their regional governments; c) first class in China, and with an international reputation – the remaining universities, each with ¥0.3 to ¥1.2 billion jointly provided by the MOE and their regional governments.

The two plus seven universities in the first two tiers comprise the C9 group, a Chinese version of the USA Ivy League or the UK Russell Group. The formal establishment of the C9 group in 2009 has been welcomed by Chinese public opinion. Its central idea of building China’s world-class universities has been well supported by both government and society. Many challenges remain, however, such as how to share the benefits of the C9 with other universities in China, and how to make Project 985 sustainable.

At the same time as Chinese higher education has been in a dramatic expansion since 1999, the government alone no longer has adequate means to finance the whole system, as it did during the previous phase when higher education engaged fewer students. Consequently, tuition fees have soared, and this means increased financial burdens on individuals and their families. There has been a growing need for student loans, grants or scholarships in China, which are often beyond the availability and desirability of national student loan schemes introduced in 1999 (Shen, 2009). Moreover, an equity issue arose relating to the decentralization policy, as poorer regions and provinces encountered difficulties in attracting investment in their higher education systems.

Enhancing graduate employability

In China, the growing numbers of university graduates have made the transition from school to work less smooth. In 2009, China had 5.3 million graduates emerging from undergraduate general higher education. According to one study, more than 30 per cent of those graduates failed to find a job after graduation in 2009. This was mainly due to skills mismatch and the inappropriate expectations of graduates ( Southern Weekly, 2006). Moreover, unemployment is lower for graduates from China’s top universities. This means that as participation in higher education increases, a major fault line in social stratification is shifting from between secondary and higher education to within higher education, that is, between the top universities and the rest.

Another challenge for the Chinese education system is that there are various employers placing different demands on the education system, including Chinese employers (state-owned enterprises and private domestic employers), foreign-owned enterprises and joint ventures. Organizations seeking skills for global competition, such as foreign-owned enterprises and joint ventures, appear most dissatisfied with Chinese graduates, as they want ‘work-ready’ graduates with prior work experience. On the other hand, Chinese employers tend to value ‘appropriate attitudes and aptitudes’ and assigned a low rating to ‘work experience’. However, they also valued ‘problem solving and creativity’ which can be explained by a higher exposure to international markets (Velde, 2009).

In this context, Chinese higher education today shares many challenges that face higher education in general across the world, such as, a) enhancing quality and equity in a massified system while creating a tier of world-class universities and centres of excellence; b) creating an appropriate teaching– research balance, as well as an academic–administrative balance; c) encouraging internationalization through greater mobility, graduate unemployment and underemployment; and d) funding diversification. On top of all these challenges is China’s unique challenge of reforming the Gaokao system in such a way as to foster creativity throughout the education sector while maintaining the tradition and significance of Gaokao in Chinese society and culture.

Looking Forward to Chinese Education in 2020

China’s latest national strategy for education system reform and development is set in the National Outline for Medium and Long Term Educational Reform and Development (2010–2020) . It was put forward by the State Council in July 2010 after in-depth debate and consultation.[4] The Outline is China’s first national plan for medium and long-term education reform and development in the twenty-first century, taking into account the full lifelong learning spectrum, spanning pre-school education and workplace learning for adults. Based on a critical assessment of the entire education system in China, the Outline put forward a series of themes that are rather unconventional in the Chinese context but which were broadly welcomed. For example, the Outline gives a strong emphasis to individual needs in learning, institutional autonomy and academic freedom in higher education. It advocates reducing the homework load for primary and secondary students, while experimenting with comprehensive senior secondary schools to provide both general and vocational education. Free secondary vocational education and admission to higher vocational education through national rather than regional entrance examinations is on the agenda. This enables public funding to support non-government kindergartens, and raises the portion of public expenditure on education to 4 per cent of GDP in 2012. Table 1.1 presents selected targets for all levels of education and training as set in the Outline.

Both Chinese society and the international community commended the Outline’s focus on both quality and equity of education and the need for educational innovation in the context of rapidly changing economic and social conditions in China and the world at large. Among a diversity of themes that have sustained continuous debates since the formal publication of the Outline, one of the major issues has been international transparency and comparability of the goals and targets set in the document. It is suggested by both Chinese and international experts that those goals and targets be brought in line with international definitions such as those in UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Reports, and that more detail be provided, such as how the goal of 4 per cent of GDP for investment in education should be allocated across the different levels and types of education and across regions and localities. In order to enable better monitoring and comparison of China’s educational progress in the international context, it is also suggested that more systematic educational data be provided in a more timely fashion. How to utilize the goals and targets to support research and evidence building for policy and programme delivery should be clarified, and knowledge exchange to bring in global ideas and showcase China’s experiences to the world should be promoted.

With regard to the targets and priorities set by the Outline, it is clear that Chinese education is heading towards a lifelong learning for all, with a real

Table 1.1. Selected major targets for China’s education development from 2009 to 2020 (millions and percentage)




Pre-school education

Total enrolment

26.6 m

34 m

40 m

3-year gross attendance rate




1-year gross attendance rate




9-year compulsory education

Total enrolment

157.7 m

161 m

165 m

Retention rate of students




Senior secondary education

Total enrolment

46.2 m

45 m

47 m

Gross enrolment rate




Vocational education

Total enrolment in secondary vocational education

21.8 m

22.5 m

23.5 m

Total enrolment in higher vocational education

12.8 m

13.9 m

14.8 m

Higher education (including both general and vocational routes)

Total enrolment

29.8 m

33.5 m

35.5 m

Gross enrolment rate




Continuing education

Number of on-the-job learners

166 m

290 m

350 m

China workforce

Average years of education for new workforce

12.4 years

13.3 years

13.5 years

Proportion of new workforce who received upper secondary or higher education




Number of people with higher education qualifications

98.3 m

145 m

195 m

‘step-change’ in awareness of and access to pre-school education, a strong basic education for all, at least an upper secondary qualification for the vast majority of the workforce, a large proportion of highly qualified young people, and an increase in adult participation in continuing education and training.

In conclusion, Chinese education has made significant progress over the past two decades. At the same time, it is as much a product of Chinese society as a contributor as the Chinese education system continues to transform and be transformed. In addition, Chinese education has sustained certain features which exert both positive and negative influence in the building of a strong education system for the twenty-first century, which some predict will be ‘China’s century’ (Brahm, 2001; Liu, 2010; Kissinger et al., 2011).


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[1] ‘Two massive irregular interruptions’ refer to the Great Leap Forward (1958–60) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76).

[2] According to Psacharopoulos and Patrinos (2002), social returns are defined on the basis of private benefits and total (private plus external) costs, because typical social rate of return estimates do not include social benefits.

[3] Assuming there are enough places for the pupils from the expected age-group and that overaged pupils are not over-represented

[4] The Outline publication followed about two years of drafting in 2008–10, five rounds of high-level consultations chaired by the Chinese premier, and two rounds of wide public consultations that received 1.1 million feedbacks.