China’s five-year plan to step up HE modernisation impetus

Universities urged to take opportunity to modernise, as government’s next strategic plan set to boost research and technology

October 29, 2020

China’s higher education sector is expected to benefit as the government rolls out its 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) during a Communist Party plenum this week.

The policy, which will determine the direction the country takes post-pandemic, from 2021 to 2025, is likely to include greater investments in science, technology, innovation and research-industry ties.  It also aims to combat major global problems such as climate change.

The main concept behind the FYP, called “dual circulation”, involves building up domestic institutions while maintaining international links, giving Beijing flexibility to navigate a post-pandemic future amid foreign tensions and rising overseas Covid infections.

Experts suggested that the plan provides a good opportunity for the higher education sector to shift to more flexible, modern and innovative management styles.

Youmin Xi, executive president of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, told Times Higher Education that the FYP showed that China now has two mechanisms for governance: one that is authoritative and top-down, and another which is more market-driven.  

Professor Xi felt that this was a chance for the education sector “to change mechanisms and to reform governance systems.”

“This is a critical plan for medium- and long-term development, and will have an impact on the HE sector, which will play an important role,” he said.

He expected more state funding for HE, but said that those additional resources should be used wisely.

“Based on the FYP, the government is keen to push research based on industry and social demand,” Professor Xi said. “However, for long-term development, basic research is still needed. We also need to cultivate the interest and curiosity of our teachers and students.”

Professor Xi said that the Covid-19 pandemic had “sped up reforms in higher education,” using as an example the quick shift to online learning. Looking ahead five years, “it is a critical time for the higher education sector to reshape itself”, he added.

Yang Rui, associate dean (research) at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) Faculty of Education, said that “the plan comes at an interesting time because of the external environment”. He added that “overall, the plan shows that China understands that it needs to depend on itself.”

He agreed that this was the time for HE reform.

“Sooner or later, Chinese higher education should develop from rough, quantitative growth to real, high-quality development,” he said. “Many problems have been caused by rapid development: for example, a very top-down management style.”

Hamish Coates, a professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education and an expert in online education, said that change is already happening.

“China, already the world’s biggest [HE] system, is engaging in a range of strengthening exercises and is committed to globalisation,” he said.

The government has already released various ethics and management reforms this year, while universities quickly set up online teaching options, even for extended periods and up through the doctorate level.  

“Such reforms will have an overarching impact on global higher education,” Professor Coates said. “Over the past 15 years we have been coaxed into pretending that there is an ‘ideal type’ of university. This is not true. And as China’s 35-year double-first class strategy plays out in coming years, we will see marked growth and diversification, not just in universities, but in the role they play in sustaining cities and communities.”

Andrew Sheng, a distinguished fellow at HKU’s Asia Global Institute who formerly taught at Tsinghua, said that “the quality of university research will improve both technological advancement, helping to upgrade the labour and managerial labour force, and upgrade creativity in products, design, marketing and distribution.”

Chinese R&D spending has been growing at about 11 per cent for several years, while R&D in higher education institutions grew 23 per cent in 2019. “This trend will continue under the FYP,” Mr Sheng said.

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