China cracks down on university name changes as market hots up

Tide of rebrands is evidence of intensifying competition and subject profile shifts in sector where status matters, say experts

September 28, 2020
Two workers clean billboards outside a shopping mall in Beijing
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China’s Ministry of Education has announced interim regulations banning the use of certain words in universities’ new names after apparently being inundated with rebranding requests, a trend seen by some experts as evidence of a continuing shift towards a marketised higher education system.

The brief government announcement listed terms that were not allowed “in principle”, including words such as “national” or “international”, regional designations such as “north China”, trademarked terms, or Chinese translations of the names of foreign colleges and universities. It also said that institutions should wait at least 10 years between name changes.

According to a 2019 report by The Paper, an official online news source, about 90 per cent of surveyed Chinese higher education institutions (1,118 out of 1,241) changed their names between 1981 and 2017. 

A study published in the April 2020 issue of China Economic Review, which analysed 522 Chinese university name changes from 2005 to 2015, showed that this rebranding generally did not significantly improve the admission scores of applications, although there were some variations depending on the type of change.

Upgrading from “college” to “university”, or adding the name of a large regional area, tended to attract better candidates.

Liu Ruiming, a co-author of the paper and a professor at the National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University of China, told Times Higher Education: “Renaming has become an important competitive tactic, given the intensification of competition in the Chinese higher education market.

"This is especially true when an institution might find its original name limiting for future development.”

Professor Liu said that the rebrandings were linked to larger societal shifts: “With reform and opening up, China’s whole economic system has undergone tremendous changes – and, accordingly, so has higher education. A Soviet-style education system is no longer relevant. Students do not want to study one narrow field, but want innovation and a broad  educational foundation.”

Universities understandably want to align themselves with fields linked to better graduate employment prospects and state support, like science, medicine, business and law. So, for example, the Shanghai Fisheries University became the Shanghai Ocean University.

Yang Rui, associate dean (research) of education at the University of Hong Kong, told THE that the sector was “status aware”.

“This has been an issue in mainland China, as nearly all universities want to become big comprehensives and offer higher-level degrees,” he said. “As for names, they want to be high sounding, thus ‘National’, ‘China’ or ‘Chinese’ are preferred.”

Professor Yang felt it was “absolutely understandable” that the ministry would want to implement some controls.

The deluge of name changes came after China started opening up its markets and boosting higher education in the early 1980s. Local governments encouraged the practice to make schools sound more modern and prestigious, but it seems that some administrators may have taken the instructions too far.

By 2017, the government said that it must “resolutely correct the tendency of some higher education institutions” to “blindly” upgrade and rename themselves. Still, 46 institutions managed to change their names in 2018, mostly because they were upgrading from “vocational college” to “college”, or from “college” to “university”, according to the Sina news wire.

Jing Liu contributed reporting.

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