China's Ambitions for Education Development: key takeaways from the 19th Party Congress

by Kevin Prest
East Asia
HE, FE, Sch, ELT, Agt

Photo: Shutterstock

China’s 19th Communist Party Congress concluded last week, with education emerging as a frequent theme in recapping progress achieved to date and future targets.

Minister of Education Chen Baosheng announced a goal for China to be the world’s top international education destination by 2049 and emphasised success achieved to date. National statistics show that around 443,000 international students studied in Mainland China in 2016, up by 35 per cent from 2012. Around half of these were students studying on programmes that award higher education qualifications. This makes China one of the top three global destinations for international students, behind the US and the UK.

Minister Chen also highlighted other major achievements. Government education spending has reached more than RMB 3 trillion (£344.4 billion) per year and exceeded 4 per cent of GDP every year since 2012, which is close to the OECD average. Meanwhile, access to education has been improved for disabled students, children of migrant workers, and students from poor and rural areas.

The entry rate to pre-school education increased to 77.4 per cent in 2016, up from 62.3 per cent five years earlier and 42.5 per cent in 2006. Reforms to China’s university admissions exam, the gaokao, have been piloted in Shanghai and Zhejiang and launched in four other provinces this year. These pilot programmes give high school students a more flexible choice of subjects as well as allowing multiple attempts at exams in some subject areas. A nationwide rollout is planned for 2020.

China is still significantly behind the UK on many education-related metrics. The UK had more than 500,000 international students at the higher education level alone in the 2015-16 academic year, in addition to more than 400,000 learners at private-sector English language centres. Government education spending accounted for 5.7 per cent of GDP in 2015, while 93 per cent of three-year-olds were enrolled in at least some government-funded education. However, the UK has seen little growth in these indicators over the last five years, while China has seen strong growth in all three.

Under President Xi Jinping’s continued leadership, we expect several prominent policy initiatives related to education to remain at the forefront of the government’s agenda. These include the following:

  • Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Ministry of Education unveiled an action plan to develop Belt and Road education partnerships with nearby countries along the Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road routes. According to the action plan, in the next three years, the Chinese government will set up a Belt and Road scholarship, which will sponsor 2,500 Chinese students per year to study in the countries along the routes for the next three years, as well as 10,000 students from these countries to study in China in each of the next five years.
  • World-Class Universities and Disciplines project: On 21 September, China’s Ministry of Education published details about the universities that will receive support under the country’s World-Class Universities and Disciplines project (also known as the “Double First Class” project). In total, 42 institutions will receive funding to help transform them into world-class universities, while support will also be provided for specific disciplines at these institutions and a further 95 universities.
  • Made in China 2025: As China seeks to further raise household incomes and increase labour efficiency, the economy needs to shift to higher order goods and services. The Made in China 2025 initiative is targeted at steadily shifting China’s manufacturing activity away from low-order assembly and towards advanced design and production. This is fuelling greater demand for research and enterprise partnerships with leading foreign institutions.

So what does this mean for the UK?

At this stage most of China’s international recruitment does not directly compete with the UK as the majority of China’s international students are from less wealthy backgrounds and would likely not have considered UK study. However, China is likely to become a more significant competitor in the future as the country’s universities move up international rankings.

China’s increasing investment in education, tied to its Double First Class project, is also likely to see more domestic students decide to remain in China as the quality of local education improves. Consequently, UK universities will need to invest time in finding the right partnerships with Chinese universities to nurture exchange through articulation and transnational education.

The focus on the Belt and Road Initiative may open up opportunities for UK universities in areas of western China where the government is increasing investment and also through three-way partnerships with China and countries along the Belt and Road Initiative. China will also be looking for collaborations in specific subject areas that support the government’s Made in China 2025 initiative. UK institutions should consider the formation of alliances and consortium approaches to partnerships in order to strategically match the depth and scale of China’s ambitions.

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