China’s Universities are Going West

(Go West) Life is peaceful there
(Go West) In the open air
(Go West) Where the skies are blue
(Go West) This is what we’re gonna do

– The lyrics of the earlier famous Pet Shop Boys hit could almost be those of China’s Western Development Strategy – aside from the fact that Lanzhou, capital of Gansu, is one of China’s more polluted cities.

Launched in January 2000, the Western Development Strategy is comprised of 10 measures aiming to further develop China’s western region. The plan incorporates the ‘West” as the six provinces Gansu, Guizhou, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Sichuan and Yunnan, the municipality of Chongqing, alongside five autonomous provinces Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang. More than half a trillion US dollars has been spent by central government on the plan across years 2000 to 2010[1].

This year it has been announced that China’s higher education sector is officially going west too, on two fronts. Firstly, the newly announced push to enhance universities in China’s Western provinces; secondly, the announcement that Zhejiang University has formalized a partnership with Imperial College, London, that may one day include a campus.

1) Development of universities in China’s west

Xinhua, China’s state-owned news agency reports Zhang Daliang, head of the higher education department of the Ministry of Education, as having stated that the relative weakness of universities in Central and Western China to be one of the greatest bottlenecks in developing the economies of those regions.[2] That is, the broader Western development strategy now requires the upgrade of the west’s universities.

Describing the scale of the challenge, Zheng Qiang, one of the NPC’s deputies and also President of Guizhou University, said “The educational divide between eastern and western China is so vast that it goes beyond the imagination”. Having previously worked at one of China’s top universities, Zhejiang University, he was more able than most to describe the depth of the challenge ahead: “Western universities’ basic operations, academic talent and innovation levels lag far behind their eastern counterparts”, he said in March.[3]

Aside from an indirect result of vast economic gap that has emerged between China’s coastal and eastern regions when compared to the landlocked west of the country, another reason for China’s university gap is policy. Western China is home to relatively few ‘985’ and ‘211’ universities. In the 1990s, under these programs, about 100 universities across China were selected for upgrade, and thus have best access to China’s educational resources, but 211 and 985 universities however are not equally spread across China. Provinces like Jiangsu (home to more than 10 211 universities) do disproportionately well from these programs, while the municipalities of Beijing and Shanghai end up taking the highest per capita shares of these resources.[4]

Under new plans, narrowing the university gap between Chinese universities, especially as this arises between China’s east and west, is the goal for 2020. Rmb10bn (USD1.6bn) has been earmarked for spending between this year and 2015 on degree-awarding educational institutions in those areas.

Aside from pursuit of a successful Western Development strategy, a second reason for advancing universities in the west could be more indirect and social harmony oriented. It turns out that in entry to the top schools, some entry scores are more equal than others. All schools in China give preferential access to students of the home province/municipality. Beyond home students, allocations for other provinces do not necessarily follow population distribution and nor even the national distribution of scores. As a result, student residents of municipalities and provinces that are home to China’s most elite schools, especially those in Beijing, have easier access to China’s top educational institutions.

Specifically, and according to a report in The Atlantic, for 2013 undergraduate access, 71,600 high school students from the province of Henan in central China sat the famous university entrance exam, gaokao. For every 10,000 examinees among them, roughly three will be offered places at China’s Peking and Tsinghua universities, China’s Harvard and MIT respectively. Comparing this entrance rate to those of Beijinger applicants, says the Atlantic, students in Henan this year are 27 times less likely than students from Beijing to be able to enter China’s most elite two schools. As one anonymous Henan parent is reported as having said “Usually rural students can’t enter first-tier universities and can’t find good jobs”.[5] Just as some were allowed to ‘get rich first’, it seems that some students are also to get smart first too.

While the government is taking steps to even up the balance, such as allowing migrant worker children to sit exams locally under certain conditions, it appears at the moment that there is no appetite for opening up entry to university to full-scale open meritocratic national competition. One route to reducing the numbers of students wanting to attend these most elite schools is arguably to improve the education level offered by other institutions in China.

2) Zhejiang University goes west – to London, SW7

In mid-May this year, Zhejiang University and Imperial College London signed a memorandum of understanding toward enhancing academic collaboration between the two institutions. One of China’s top-tier universities, and one of the world’s leading science research universities, this could shape up to be a formidable partnership. Details of the partnership are emerging, and have been reported to include a campus of Zhejiang University in London alongside Imperial’s own campus.

Part of a broader push to internationalize China’s universities, this will be a development to watch. A list of Chinese university’s outreach in recent years can be found here. A comprehensive glance through the list will indeed confirm Chinese Universities are not just going West, but South too – to Egypt, Laos, Malaysia, and seemingly, a country near you.






Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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