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China's Higher Education Revolution

By Bill Costello - December 17, 2009 12:00 AM

I recently visited the top four universities in mainland China: Tsinghua University, Peking University, Fudan University, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The former two are located in Beijing, and the latter two are located in Shanghai.

As an American educational researcher, the purpose of my visit was to witness and assess China's higher education revolution firsthand.

When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, there were only 205 universities in China. They closed down during the turbulent era of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1977. Under Deng Xiaoping, they began to reopen in 1978.

In the 30 years since, China has experienced a higher education revolution. It now has the largest higher education system in the world.Five of its universities are in the world's top 100. University enrollment has more than tripled since 2000. More university degrees are awarded in China than in the U.S. and India combined. Over the last decade, annual awards of doctoral degrees in China have risen sevenfold. China recently surpassed the UK to become the world's second-largest producer of academic research papers, and is on course to surpass the U.S. by 2020.

The four universities I visited are part of a nine-university alliance, dubbed C9, which is hailed as China's Ivy League. The nine universities share resources and recognize each other's course credits.

China's C9 League differs from America's Ivy League in several ways.First, C9 universities are public; the Ivy League universities are private. Second, C9 universities answer to the Ministry of Education; the Ivy League universities answer to their own board. Third, C9 formed around academics; the Ivy League formed around athletics. Fourth, C9 includes nine universities; the Ivy League includes eight.

The C9 League was created on October 10, 2009; however, the concept for its formation began a decade ago when Jiang Zemin initiated Project 985.Under the project, the nine universities received millions of dollars in funding.

China's heavy investment in its leading universities is evident. As I explored the four campuses, I was impressed with the massive number of research facilities.

As China continues to strengthen its universities, the U.S. appears to be losing its international dominance in higher education. If the U.S. falls behind, it will be a very long march back.


Bill Costello, M.Ed., is an education columnist and blogger. He can be reached at www.makingmindsmatter.com.
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