The ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Chinese Higher Education and Policy Implications for Post-Pandemic Education Governance

Bowen Xu


The second half of the 20th century has witnessed a global expansion in tertiary education. In line with this global trend, China has also experienced a dramatic expansion in its higher education (HE) sector over three large-scale developments during the same period. The third and last wave of higher education expansion has proved to be the most influential one, affecting Chinese higher education development enormously and has made significant impact on the Chinese society. Following the initiation of Action Scheme for Invigorating Education Towards the 21st century (1998), the gross enrollment rate for Chinese HE institutions has experienced an unprecedented growth, from 9.8% in 1998 to 50.6% in 2018 over the last 2 decades. The number of regular HE institutions also increased significantly during the same period, from 1,022 in 1998 to 2,914 in 2017. This huge expansion makes China’s HE system the largest in the world. The dramatic increase in HE capacity has brought many more educational opportunities to accommodate the needs arising from aspiring young generation. However, accompanying this rapid expansion, observers have also expressed concerns regarding the growing inequalities in HE access, HE effectiveness and efficiency in promoting economic growth, and rising tension between HE massification and graduates’ employment prospects.

Policy decision to expand HE is often found to be associated with a range of economic, political and sociological factors. In the case of China, HE expansion was largely driven by the national task of modernization and carried out in line with the process of human talent cultivation. Yet policy formation over 1998 HE expansion has also incorporated some contingent factors into consideration. For instance, the Asian financial crisis. Against the background of regional economic hardship, HE expansion was considered as a counter-strategy to the heavily suffered national economy. Policy advisors see enlarging HE enrollment rate as an effective way to not only sustain GDP growth through domestic investment in the HE sector, but also to alleviate employment markets by delaying the time graduates enter the labor market. The framing of HE in economic terms has resulted in unintended consequences in years followed. Acknowledging HE expansion has made “Great Leap Forward” achievements over the last 20 years, issues also emerge. Scholarly discussion has been centered around the impact of HE enlargement on the Chinese economy, and to date there is no conclusive statement as to how much has the HE expansion actually benefits economic growth over the long run. More researchers studying the issue of education equity assert that HE expansion may have the intention to equalize learning opportunities for all, but in fact only serve the interests of socially advantaged groups at the cost of socially disadvantaged populations. Moreover, the question of employment in post expansion context revealed a complex scenario, indicating an increasing amount of pressure and anxiety among graduates and their families. It has to be made clear that some of the post HE expansion syndrome is not unique to China, but engage with these questions may have wider implications.

Most recently, an emerging wave of HE expansion is set in motion, as is indicated through the latest policy announcement. The focus is on enlarging the postgraduate level intake. Despite the fact that China is a late starter, its relentless efforts in pursuing postgraduate education excellence has gradually established one of the largest doctoral training systems worldwide, with 74,400 doctoral enrollments as of 2015, and the new target is to raise this figure to 100,000 in 2020. Some of China’s top ranked HE institutions have swiftly embarked enlargement process through their respectively made institutional plans. To some observers, the timing of policy formation remains as a matter of interest as the world is facing an enormous challenge concurrently – the Covid-19. So far, we have little knowledge about in what ways could the Covid crisis affect HE policymaking, yet we are sure the Covid effects have been spreading over 143 counties, disrupting the education of 1.1 billion learners worldwide. Given the previous experience China had in HE expansion, extra attention is needed to consider further expanding HE enrollment. Without the solving of existing problems, it is likely that the forthcoming HE expansion will only lead to more social and economic predicaments.

It will be hard to predict what will happen precisely, yet by drawing on historical experience and reflecting on previous success and failure in HE reforms we may better navigate through the current crisis towards a brighter future. In this blogpost, I highlight the fact that the current Covid-19 as a global health crisis shares certain features with the 1998 Asian financial crisis in that both events significantly downgrade economic growth. The current policy design in recruiting more postgraduate students also mirrors the way in which HE expansion occurs in the late 1990s amidst the economic repression. This entry will be acting as a channel to stimulate discussion on how to best understand HE policymaking in relation to wider economic conditioning. More importantly, it hopes to shed lights on reimaging and reconstructing sustainable HE governance, catering the changing relations of politics, economy and society and maximizing the public good of HE and advancing social justice.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Bowen Xu is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Bowen’s research focus on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, higher education and region-building. Bowen’s broader interests include higher education, comparative and international education, political economy and international relations.

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