Higher education in China undergoing major transformation

Education strategy may have global implications

June 4, 2008

Waterloo, Canada - A major transformation of higher education in China has the potential to impact the global economy and global education structure, according to recent findings from the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

CIGI's newest policy brief, Higher Educational Transformation in China and its Global Implications, presents an overview of Chinese policies in the education sector and finds that the most recent transformation is focused on major commitments to tertiary education. This strategy differs from those of other low-wage economies, which invest heavily in primary and secondary education, and has implications for global trade in both ideas and idea-derived products.

The authors point to recent statistics showing the number of undergraduate and graduate students in China has increased by about 30 per cent per year since 1999. Earlier studies estimate that by 2010 there will be substantially more PhD engineers and scientists in China than in the United States and within two years 90 per cent of all PhD physical scientists and engineers in the world will be Asians living in Asia, most of whom will be Chinese.

This outcome, the authors believe, is a result of a number of factors, including improved access to higher education for rural households, promotion of elite universities and consolidation of other universities to reduce their numbers. The focus of the policy is to elevate a small number of Chinese universities to world-class status. These institutions have been put under extraordinary pressure to upgrade their international rankings, measured by publications in international journals, citations and international cooperation.

"Potential implications for the global education system and global economy are major," says CIGI Distinguished Fellow John Whalley. "If China succeeds by maintaining high growth or initiating new growth by using educational transformation, other countries may follow with higher educational competition between countries as a possible outcome."

Chinese education transformation is a result of strategy driven by decisions made at the high policy levels in China and not by analysis of the demand side of labour markets. In China's case, these latest efforts seem to be motivated by a desire to maintain high growth by using educational transformation as the primary mechanism for skill upgrading and raising total productivity. This unique development strategy started in the late 1990s and is still in its early stages. However, the authors suggest that Chinese education policy will form a central element in China's integration into the international economy.

The policy brief was authored by Yao Li, PhD candidate in the Department of Economics at the University of Western Ontario; John Whalley, CIGI distinguished fellow and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada; Shunming Zhang, professor of economics and finance at Xiamen University in China; and Xiliang Zhao, assistant professor in the Department of Economics as well as the Wang Yanan Institute for Economic Studies at Xiamen University in China.

For more information about this policy brief or other CIGI publications, please visit: www.cigionline.org/publications

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.