Building World-Class Universities in China: From the View of National Strategies

SHEN, Guanzi

In this article, the author discusses the rapid growth of the university system in China, termed “massification”, and the backlash which has arisen as a result of this sudden expansion. She also dissects the government’s attempts to curtail the issues resulting from these challenges.

1. Introduction
Establishing world-class universities has long been the goal of the Chinese academic community, government and policy makers, especially under the rapid economic development in recent years. After the massive expansion that began in 1999, a steep increase of enrollment and quick expansion of universities spurred on the higher education system to transfer from “elite higher education” to “mass higher education”. Along with the expansion, consequent problems such as quality, funding, adequate support facilities, qualified academic staff, and competences of graduates are all emerging gradually. On the other hand, the underperformance of Chinese universities in all the global rankings is considered an unsuitable manifestation regarding the international standing of China. Therefore, initiatives for building elite universities, more specifically world-class universities, were started by the Ministry of Education of China, two of which are known as “Project 211” and “Project 985”. The most salient issue to support the initiatives is funding, meanwhile the vertical differentiation inside the system has become steeper and brought consequent problems in the context of massification.

Building world-class universities is, first and foremost, a way to compete with other leading universities, but also seen as a way to present the strength of the higher education system as well as national power. Apart from attempts at policymaking and changing strategies, the Chinese government is also seeking an appropriate pathway to improve the quality of higher education from international empirical experience. This article discusses the national strategies and prospects of building world-class universities in China from the perspective of quality, rankings, and research excellence.

2. Key Issues of World-Class University
The notion of “world-class” is not a new one, but has been much invoked by governments and by universities themselves in recent years. To become world-class, universities have incessantly strived for excellence, which always has implications for the quality of higher education. The distinction of a university and its academic quality consists of maintaining high achievement, rather than exceeding high standards at any given time.

2.1. Quality and Quality Assurance in Higher Education
Each stakeholder has different expectations of quality, with individuals’ subjective criteria. Quality takes on different meanings depending on educational context as well as inputs, processes, outputs, missions, and objectives of higher education institutions. Quality is also closely related to standards that could measure indicators for comparison studies in higher education, such as research outcomes, graduates’ employment status and student involvement. Among the quality concepts of higher education is the broadly accepted typology defined by Green and Harvey (1993). This typology defines quality as: (a) the exceptional or excellence, which bears an element of elitism; (b) perfection or consistency, which is linked to the notion of reliability and to conformity through compliance with a set standard; (c) fitness for purpose, often linked to the need to address fitness of purpose as the required reference point; (d) value for money, which is sometimes linked to the notion of value for time invested, both of which related more closely than other definitions of quality to the quality concept of – partly rational and partly emotional – customer satisfaction; (e) transformation, considering the individual gain accrued in the course of a learning experience (Harvey, 2006; Kohler, 2009).

Quality in higher education may be too complex to define, but the significant increase of national and international competition and diversification in the higher education sector, which has created an incredibly rich variety of course offerings, programs and degrees, has also resulted in the necessity for quality assessment, and quality assurance becomes all the more evident (Müller-Böling & Federkeil, 2007). Quality assurance is “an all-embracing term referring to an ongoing, continuous process of evaluating (assessing, monitoring, guaranteeing, maintaining, and improving) the quality of a higher education system, institutions, or programmes” (Vlãsceanu et al., 2004, p. 48). The accountability nature of quality assurance and the pressure of achieving it results in an improvement in practice. The improvement of quality is thus inextricably related to standards in education, which are used to measure outcomes “that could be used for comparative purpose with indicators” (Harvey, 2006, p. 3). There are four broad approaches associated with quality assurance: auditing, assessment, and accreditation (Woodhouse, 1999), as well as external examination (Harvey & Newton, 2007). High quality of higher education always implies high grade or high status. The numeric output of the external evaluation of quality is often used by others to create rankings, especially those grading on a single dimension. Although ranking is a highly controversial issue, as a manifestation of global competition for talent, it is still considered to be a measure of quality or world-class excellence (Hazelkorn, 2008).

2.2. Quality and Rankings
There are numbers of different national, cross-national and global university rankings throughout the world with various methodologies or defined scopes that are profoundly influential; some of them are constantly drawing attention, such as ARWU by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Time and QS Rankings, and the Germany CHE University Ranking. There is a strong belief, especially by the public media outside of the academic community, that the quality of higher education institutions could be measured and rankings/league tables can be regarded as the most popular way to accomplish this. Consequently, winners with what they possessed in the top prestige hierarchies are also perceived as top quality. Unlike other approaches to quality assurance, rankings attempt to examine and compare higher education institutions as a whole, and intend to draw all the higher education institutions into the global knowledge market. However, academic quality is a complex concept to measure and quantify by an overall profile, regardless the huge variety of higher education institutions in different higher education systems.

As matter of course, people interested in rankings consider them to be gospel concerning which university provides the best education, despite the fact that most of the existing rankings put more weight on research performance rather than quality of teaching. In practice, the measuring of institutional quality can and should be applied to all three primary functions of higher education institutions: teaching, research, and service. Compared with other academic activities, research performance is easy to obtain from international data without taking subjective measures. The depth and breadth of research performance of a university could be overestimated solely because it has an outstanding laboratory or a prize winner. On the other hand, performance indicators are used as instruments in rankings to present accountability and value for money, but only if those indicators are perfectly correlated with the quality concept which is intended to be measured. Even if those indicators have been chosen appropriately, they could be interpreted in various ways due to different expectations. Moreover, from the natures and methodology, it could be that rankings represent the reputations of higher education institutions, rather than their quality. Whether using performance indicators, peer review, or employer surveys, the commonly applied rankings methodologies are largely identified by reputations and perceptions.

Rankings are only instruments to find out “who” is the best, but also should provide answers the consider “best for whom” and “best how”. Striving for higher standings in rankings should not be the sole reason and rationale for establishing world-class universities in a higher education system, especially for a developing country like China.

3. From National Elite to World-Class
Salmi (2009) has attempted to propose a manageable definition of the characteristics of a world-class university, that three complementary sets of factors can essentially be attributed to world-class universities: a high concentration of talent, abundant resources, and favorable governance. Favorable policy, public support and financing conditions are always crucial to enabling widely-recognized world-class universities in the system. Based upon international experience, Salmi (2009) summarized three strategies, from the perspective of government, which can be followed to establish world-class universities: first, governments could consider upgrading a small number of existing universities that have the potential of excelling (picking winners); second, governments could encourage a number of existing institutions to merge and transform into a new university that would achieve the type of synergies corresponding to a world-class institution (hybrid formula); and third, governments could create new world-class universities from scratch (clean-slate approach). Chinese higher education authority is applicable to a combination of strategies of upgrading and merging.

3.1. Initiatives of Building World-Class Universities
With a great number of universities existing in mainland China, voices demanding greater respect in the global community have become stronger and stronger. Some Chinese universities actually have worldwide reputations to some extent, but they rarely have decent positions in the rankings and league tables. Therefore, Project 211 and Project 985 were established along with the request of building world-class universities in China.

Project 211 aims at cultivating high-level elite universities for national economic and social development strategies. Until now, there were 112 universities and three university-affiliated medical schools on the list for the third phase of Project 211. According to a report of the Ministry of Education, the total funding for Project 211 is approximately 3.68 billion euros over the course of ten years. Project 985 was initiated under the call that "China must have a number of top-class universities at international level" by President Jiang Zemin in 1998, which aims to support several elite universities in becoming higher-level and world-class universities. The phrase “a number of top-class universities at international level” originally only referred to “two,” namely Peking University and Tsinghua University. Then, another seven universities ended up being included in Project 985. Although the list expanded to 34 universities, these nine universities are outstanding and represent the leading universities in China. Compared with Project 211, Project 985 put more emphasis on the construction of elite universities themselves, instead of the “elite system”. A total of approximately 30 billion yuan (about 3 billion euros) were supposed to be invested in Project 985. Both of these initiatives are funded by the Ministry of Education, competent departments and local governments. After the establishment of Project 211 and Project 985, a hierarchy in the classification of the higher education system was finally formed.

Unlike other excellence programs of universities, such as the German Excellence Initiative, which mainly focuses on excellence in research, Project 211 and Project 985 aspire to improve quality of teaching and the overall conditions of universities because the distances have not only appeared in the research area. On the other hand, almost all of the top universities in recent world rankings show a strong research orientation, but only a few research universities are located in developing countries like China. All world-class universities are research universities, and they always play a critical role within the tertiary education system in training the professionals, scientists and researchers needed for the economic development and generating new knowledge in support of the national innovation system (World Bank, 2002).

3.2. Research Universities in China
Capacity of building research excellence is a critical strategy driven by national governments to create a remarkable dimension of activities, and research universities have become the center of the quest for world-class status. Research missions are also seen as significant approaches to represent and achieve value for money of high quality. Unlike the binary system of German higher education that all the universities could be classified as research universities except the Fachhochschulen, most of the Chinese universities cannot be identified as research universities because teaching has been a priority mission instead of research. China has established several independent research institutions out of the university system that provide graduate education, conducting more fundamental research crossover in all the major subjects, and also attracting more social resources and qualified academic staff. Only a few universities have the research capacity to participate in the global knowledge market at this time, while research institutions cannot be taken into account in university rankings, even though they have graduate schools. Therefore, in order to enhance the international status and visibility of research capacity, the Chinese government has placed great efforts on intensifying research missions in universities, including enlarging the scale of graduate education, increasing funding, and building foundations to promote research work in universities.

However, research universities should be a small part for the academic system instead of a mirage chased by most of the institutions. The over-care and desperate desire for research universities results in an unreasonable pursuit of a status of an “engaged in research” status and also implies ignorance from the standpoint of other universities and colleges at the national strategic level. Those universities not entitled to the research university status will strive for research missions in their own universities regardless their capacities. Meanwhile, a wave of university mergers has arisen with a view towards building comprehensive universities. Although the rationale of university mergers is still under debate, to create a cross-disciplinary research environment for knowledge development by merging is seen to be a great effort to help leading universities build up the capacity to become world-class universities, as well as high quality in higher education (Ma, 2007). At the same time, a number of colleges that provide short-cycle degrees were upgraded to the undergraduate level and are eligible to grant bachelors’ degrees. All these reforms of upgrading and merging have been undertaken by central and local governments in the name of higher education expansion, and are also considered an effective way to deal with the problems associated with massification.

3.3 Higher Education Expansion
The expansion of Chinese higher education was initiated in 1999 in the form of increased enrollment in higher education, especially for degree education. According to the report of the Ministry of Education of China, between 1999 and 2009 the total number of higher education institutions doubled from 1071 to 2305, and the enrollment total in undergraduate education and vocational-technical education increased from 1,548,554 to 6,394,932. For graduate education, the total number of new entrants increased from 86,315 to 510,953 (Ministry of Education, 2010), and this significant growth also implied a necessity for strengthening research missions in higher education. However the expansion of higher education institutions applies not only to the public sector, as private education is becoming a considerable force in undergraduate and vocational-technical education. A diversified higher education provision has been introduced into the higher education construction, including adult higher education, three-year specialized education, and examination-based self-study higher education. With the expansion, the degree-education became more desirable by students and their parents, to satisfy this demand many colleges upgraded to universities in order to get the eligibility to have baccalaureate level programs. The expansion also brought criticism concerning the quality issue. First, The National Matriculation Test might fail to be the standard as the threshold to higher education in the access and admission process. Then, many universities have doubted if they are qualified enough to enhance and empower students, and third, when more and more graduates from different levels of education are swarming into the labor market, their competencies and qualifications have been questioned by employers.

The shift from an elite to a massive system in China has not weakened the pursuit of elitism in higher education. The “mass higher education” did not absolutely substitute “elite higher education”, but rather became a second sector to in order to preserve the elite (Teichler, 2010). The elite sector is even attracting more attention from politicians to represent the highest reputation and quality of higher education that matches the rapid economic development. In the massive expansion, the elite sector has still kept their privilege of receiving extra funding and recruiting the most talented students. Correspondingly, the rest of the higher education system is suffering from quality issues generated by massification, including admission criteria, facilities and personnel support, financial barriers, and transition to the labor market. Especially within Chinese higher education systems underwritten mainly by public funding, it is crucial to make a clear classification of higher education institutions in order to keep the elite status of research universities while also maintaining the overall quality of higher education.

3.4. Funding of Research Universities
Public funding from the governmental budget is an integral part of operating higher education institutions in China, which genuinely represent political intentions. With massive expansion of higher education in China, larger quantities of students will aggravate the quality problems without appropriate funding allocation. For the academic system, research universities are inevitably more expensive to manage and require more resources and funds to maintain than other types of higher educational institutions. The decision to establish several world-class universities through cherry-picking instead of improving the overall quality of higher education is obviously a cost-effective and time-saving shortcut to achieve a quick response to global knowledge market perspectives, as well as hanging on to the reputation of those national elite universities. The Ministry of Education and other central commissions, as the main funding bodies in China, are willing to distribute limited social resources to universities holding those programs, which are directed by researchers with great scientific capacity and have a higher probability to achieve the expected results. The flow of funding and social resources of universities of the lower cluster to the top cluster, and the increasing investment in those top universities reinforces the Matthew Effect in the academic system. This over-accumulation of funding, benefits and awards is a waste of research resources, which also leads to a large proportion of institutions becoming completely teaching-oriented because they don’t have sufficient funding and resources to carry out research in their own universities.

Nevertheless, funding is not the single antidote to balance the negative consequences of massification. The initiative for building excellence in China signified for the state and other stakeholders a decision to build “lighthouses” instead of improving the overall quality of higher education, and these universities are labeled as “top universities” under government appeal rather than achieving genuinely high quality themselves. With the hierarchical system and funding scheme shaped by the government, other universities will certainly feel that they have been relegated to a “second rate” position. The situation also inflicted feelings of being “losers” on the large scale of the system, and might retard the whole system by frustrating the majority. Moreover, the limited amount of funding is unable to cover all candidates selected by the government and develop them all into research universities. Therefore, with a well-organized classification of higher education institutions regarding distinct academic missions, different funding plans are needed according to their roles in society.

3.5. A Differentiated Higher Education System in China
Before the implementation of Project 985, there was no clear definition for research universities in the Chinese higher education system. The classification and orientation of each higher education institutions was based largely on the principle of government policy. In recent decades, several theories of higher education institutional classification have been developed based on different dimensions and measurements such as administrative relationships, disciplines and subjects, number of academic staff, publications, SCI and rankings. The most commonly consulted theory is the classification that results from the ideas and initiatives related to building elite universities. Nian-Cai Liu and Shao-Xue Liu (2005) have classified Chinese higher education institutions into five categories and later elaborated them into nine categories in total, considering the criteria of the Carnegie Classification in the U.S. and Amano’s classification in Japan. They are: Research Universities (type I and II), Doctoral Universities (type I and II), Master’s Universities (type I and II), Baccalaureate colleges (type I and II), and Associate Colleges. Classifications are supposed to be the rationales of policy making, and government should make their development strategies in accordance with different institutions’ types and modes. Nevertheless, most of these highly research-orientated classifications of higher education institutions in China end up with rankings or principles of rankings, although the Ministry of Education has taken an attitude of strongly protesting against all university rankings. The government intends to emphasize regulations-rational authority, but the existing regulations are partial, and have consequently formed hierarchies.

The initiatives for building elite universities in China have intensified vertical differentiation, which is seen as a hierarchy of quality differences in China, notwithstanding the fact that the same quality criteria cannot fit all the types of higher education institutions. Correspondingly, horizontal diversity according to substantive profiles of higher education institutions has pressured for homogeneity to prevail (Teichler, 2007), especially in curricular and study programs. Apart from the pressures from massive expansion of higher education, another purpose of the merging and upgrading movement inside the academic system is to build universities with a full range of baccalaureate and graduate programs, this has been widely considered as the principle and precondition for research universities, as far as developing world-class universities. National strategies have also been adapted to infuse research funds into these universities and privilege them with favorable policies. The aggressive and wide-spread pursuit of building world-class universities has therefore led to a rush to imitate these top universities. Because of the imitating of certain types of universities, horizontal differentiation has turned out to be “narrow” and the higher education system has become extremely stratified.

By introducing different classifications, Chinese higher education intends to move towards a relatively flat horizontal hierarchy and a system with profiles of individual institutions according to their institutional settings. A well developed and differentiated higher education system is not only based on a precise and elaborate classification, but also on favorable policymaking and strategic support for higher education institutions in each category of the classification. Apart from the few universities that have been supported and promoted to become research universities, other universities and colleges should also have the chance to compete for funding and policy support. Different types of higher education institutions should also be able to maintain their specialties and special features in the midst of meaningless merging and upgrading.

4. Conclusions
The underperformance of Chinese universities among commonly consulted rankings has catalyzed the government to quicken the steps of building world-class universities in order the increase international visibility and competition. However, using performance rankings as a rationale for developing world-class universities could mislead the overall national strategy and have adverse effects on the higher education system. The “one size fits all” procedure of ranking basically reduces the complexity into a simple grade. Through these grades, governments and universities can barely find appropriate solutions to improve quality and build world-class universities.

Investing money in only a few institutions is not sufficient to build world-class universities. Dealing with the massive expansion of higher education and funding research universities as well as the entire system properly are critical for preparing to create world-class universities in China. Having several elite or world-class universities does not signify an improvement in the overall quality in higher education. The over-emphasis on the development of the elite sector will undermine the quality of higher education because most of the universities and colleges cannot receive adequate benefits and support from the government. An imbalanced development of different types of higher education institutions will undermine the overall quality of higher education. To improve the situation and be well prepared for the goals, a well-developed differentiated higher education system with rational funding schemes is demanded, in order to match the differentiation and ensure the balanced development of each sector in the system. Higher education institutions in different categories will not be proud of their specialties unless they are able to get appropriate support in funding and well-oriented development plans for them to accept and improve their current position in the academic system.

Building world-class universities is not simply selecting some leading national universities and investing in them to gain world-class statuses. At a national strategy level, many other factors are important, including quality improvement, developing research universities, massive expansion of higher education, and funding of the whole system. Apart from these issues discussed above, quality assurance of higher education and institutional autonomy in China is also critical but incomplete. Chinese higher education is now in need of introducing third-party quality assurance bodies or networks to establish a quality assurance system that targets different types of institutions with multiple approaches. Meanwhile, governments should grant the elite sector, especially research universities, more autonomy and place emphasis on accountability to make spending policies and quality accreditation more clear and transparent.

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About the author

Guanzi Shen holds a Bachelor's Degree of Economics major in Statistics from Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing (China). In 2011, she successfully completed her Master's Degree in Higher Education Research and Development from the International Centre of Higher Education Research and Development (INCHER-Kassel) at Kassel University (Germany).

She has worked for an Australian Higher Education Group in the China regional office in Beijing. She has a good knowledge of technical and further education training and related policies. Her main research interests are: higher education and national policy study, comparative study of Europe and China, ranking and classification methodology, internationalization and social accountability of higher education institutions.


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