Thinking about a higher education career in China? Here is an essential guide to working in Chinese academia
About higher education in China
Higher education in China has soared in quality in recent years, with an increasing number of universities and colleges appearing among the top-ranked in the world. Today, there are more students in China than in any other country: 36.5 million were enrolled at the last count in 2015, and that number is rising every year.
China has about 3,000 higher education institutions. Most of these are public universities, which include many of the country’s best and most generously funded institutions in Beijing, Shanghai, and the great cities of eastern China. However, the number of private universities has soared in recent years, to about 800 (up from 20 in 1997), so there are plenty of options for academics and professional staff looking to further their careers in China.
The Chinese higher education system is divided into two sectors: “regular” higher education and “adult” higher education. Some 90 per cent of colleges and universities are in the regular higher education sector, along with more than 70 per cent of undergraduate students. This sector includes 446 private institutions, 274 independent colleges (quasi-private) and seven Chinese-foreign co-operative initiatives, set up as joint partnerships between Chinese and foreign education systems.
It should be noted that not all Chinese institutions offer degrees. While 1,202 regular higher education institutions do give degrees, many others give graduation certificates for more practical and occupational skills.
Adult higher education institutions follow the same curriculum as regular institutions, but their teaching format is often more flexible and diverse, including such methods as distance-learning and part-time study.
University funding in China
Funding varies dramatically between different universities. Project 211, established in 1995, gives significantly increased funding to universities that reach certain standards, and today it includes more than 117 universities. The next rung up, Project 985, established three years later, is a similar directive, but includes only the 39 best universities.
Since 2011, this directive is not accepting any new entrants. The C9 league includes the top nine most elite universities, which receive 10 per cent of China’s research budget between them.
These projects also function as government initiatives to categorise their top universities (a bit like the UK’s Russell Group system or the Ivy League in the United States).
International staff in Chinese universities
China has also made efforts to attract top global talent to its top tier universities, such as Plan 111, established in 2005 to bring in 1,000 overseas academics. Since the early 1990s, the government has given generous funds to Chinese “star” academics working abroad if they return to China.
In 2010, the government announced plans to increase the number of international students in China to 500,000 by 2020 (up from 265,000 at the time). To attract these students, there has been a significantly increased number of undergraduate and graduate programmes taught exclusively in English. China is now the third biggest destination for international students after the US and the UK.
There are also efforts to strengthen ties with specific regions. Some 10,000 scholarships for students from Arab League member states were established in 2016 and 30,000 for nationals from Africa.
University salaries in China
Academic salaries vary hugely in different regions, but It has been reported that the overall average in 2008 was £921.49 per month.
As with many heads of state-owned enterprises in China, the head of a public university is often known as a secretary of the Communist Part of China (CPC) committee. This is usually a role without administrative responsibilities. The associate secretary of the CPC committee is normally appointed president, with other associate secretaries being vice-presidents. They look after areas such as academic, administrative, facilities, finance and so on. In most universities, academics have a four-level rank system, i.e. professor, associate or assistant professor, lecturer, and assistant lecturer.
Academic careers in China
The typical career journey for academics in China starts at the undergraduate degree, followed by a master’s and then a PhD. Most doctoral graduates will then be appointed at the lecturer level. After two years of teaching they receive a qualification to become an associate professor after two years of teaching. Those holding a PhD from western universities or with work experience overseas will sometimes be appointed at a higher level to begin with, and in special cases at full professor level immediately.
Chinese universities also offer career opportunities beyond teaching and academic research, including roles for English language speakers to serve the increasing number of western students and staff. The marketing and communication team manage the university’s brand promotion and external relations. They work in conjunction with student recruitment officers, working from within China and abroad.
Librarians disseminate information and provide support to students, researchers and lecturing staff. There may be a campus management team, responsible for on-site issues and logistic support. A student services team deals with day-to-day student issues and hosts student programmes. The admissions team manages the enrolment process, and may include a career planning service and a team to co-ordinate alumni association activities.
Finance officers safeguard a university’s assets, creating financial plans and implementing financial regulations and procedures.