History of Higher Education in China

The traditional Chinese education system is based on legalist and Confucian ideals. The teaching of Confucius has shaped the overall Chinese mindset for the past 2500 years. But, other outside forces have played a large role in the nation's educational development. The First Opium War of 1840, for example, opened China to the rest of the world. As a result, Chinese intellectuals discovered the numerous western advances in science and technology. This new information greatly impacted the higher education system and curriculum.

A number of institutions lay claim to being the first university in China. Peking University is the first formally established modern national university of China. It was founded as Imperial Capital University (Chinese: 京師大學堂) in 1898 in Beijing as a replacement of the ancient Guozijian (Chinese: 國子監), the national central institute of learning in China's traditional educational system. Meanwhile, Wuhan University also claimed that its predecessor Ziqiang Institute (自強學堂) was the first modern higher education institution in China. On November 29, 1893, Zhang Zhidong submitted his memorial to Guangxu Emperor to request for approval to set up an institution designed for training students specializing in foreign languages, mathematics, science and business. After Ziqiang was founded in Wuchang, not only courses in foreign languages was taught, courses in science (chemical and mining courses starting from 1896) and business (business course starting from the very beginning) were also developed at the school. Later, although the school officially changed its name to Foreign Languages Institute (方言學堂) in 1902, the school still offered courses in science and business. In China, there had been some earlier schools specializing in foreign languages learning, such as Schools of Combined Learning in Beijing (京師同文館, founded in 1862 remark 1), in Shanghai (上海同文館/上海廣方言館, founded in 1863), and in Guangzhou (廣州同文館), founded in 1864, but few provided courses in other fields, which hardly qualified as modern education institutions. Some argued that Wuhan University can only traced its history back to 1913, when the National Wuchang Higher Normal College (國立武昌高等師範學校) was established, but Wuhan University officially recognized its establishment as in 1893, relying on the abundance of historical documentation and the experts' endorsement. In 1895, Sheng Xuanhuai (Chinese: 盛宣懷) submitted a memorial to Guangxu Emperor to request for approval to set up a modern higher education institution in Tianjin. After approval on October 2, 1895, Peiyang Western Study School (Chinese: 天津北洋西學學堂) was founded by him and American educator Charles Daniel Tenney (Chinese: 丁家立) and later developed to Peiyang University (Chinese: 北洋大學堂). In 1896, Sheng Xuanhuai (Chinese: 盛宣懷) delivered his new memorials to Guangxu Emperor to make suggestion that two official modern higher education institutions should be established in Beijing and Shanghai. In the same year, he founded Nanyang Public School (Chinese: 南洋公學) in Shanghai by an imperial edict issued by Guangxu Emperor. The institution initially included elementary school, secondary school, college, and a normal school. Later the institution changed its name to Jiao Tong University (also known as Chiao Tung University, Chinese: 交通大學). In the 1930s, the university was well known in the world as the "Eastern MIT" due to its reputation of nurturing top engineers and scientists. In the 1950s, part of this university was moved to Xi'an, an ancient capital city in northwest China, and was established as Xi'an Jiaotong University; the part of the university remaining in Shanghai was renamed Shanghai Jiao Tong University. These two universities have developed independently since then. Tianjin University celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1995, followed by Jiao Tong University (both in Shanghai and Xi'an) in 1996. Other leading universities, such as Zhejiang University (1897), Peking University (1898), Nanjing University (1902), Central China Normal University (1903), Fudan University (1905),Tongji University (1907) and Tsinghua University (1911) also recently celebrated their hundredth anniversaries, one after another.

Soviet influence in the early 1950s brought all higher education under government leadership. Research was separated from teaching. The government also introduced a central plan for a nationally unified instruction system, i.e. texts, syllabi, etc. The impact of this shift can still be seen today. Chinese higher education continues its struggle with excessive departmentalisation, segmentation, and overspecialisation in particular.

From 1967 to 1976, China's Cultural Revolution took another toll on higher education, which was devastated more than any other sector of the country. The enrollment of postsecondary students can be used as example to illustrate the impacts. The number dropped from 674,400 to 47,800. This has had a major impact on education in the 21st century. The decline in educational quality was profound.

In 1977, Deng Xiaoping made the decision of resuming the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gao Kao), having profound impact on Chinese higher education in history. From the 1980s on, Chinese higher education has undergone a series of reforms that have slowly brought improvement. The government found that schools lacked the flexibility and autonomy to provide education according to the needs of the society. Structural reform of higher education consists of five parts:

reforms of education provision
recruitment and job-placement
inner-institute management--the most difficult.
The reforms aim to provide higher education institutions more autonomy and the ability to better meet the needs of students. Instead of micromanagement, the state aims to provide general planning.

The Provisional Regulations Concerning the Management of Institutions of Higher Learning, promulgated by the State Council in 1986, led to a number of changes in administration and adjusted educational opportunity, direction and content. Reform allowed universities and colleges to:

choose their own teaching plans and curricula
to accept projects from or cooperate with other socialist establishments for scientific research and technical development in setting up "combines" involving teaching, scientific research, and production
to suggest appointments and removals of vice presidents and other staff members;
to take charge of the distribution of capital construction investment and funds allocated by the state
to be responsible for the development of international exchanges by using their own funds.
Reforms picked up the pace in 2000, with the state aiming to complete the reform of 200 universities operating under China's ministries and start 15 university-based scientific technology parks.