When Deng re-opened the universities, the system somehow managed to pull together a couple of hundred thousand professors, and around 600 institutions started enrolling students. By 1980 that meant about a million students a year in mainstream universities (plus another half-million in specialized “adult higher education institutions”), and a cozy student: faculty ratio of about 4:1. Over the next decade, to 1990, those numbers would increase to about 2 million in universities (mostly in 4-year undergraduate programs known as Benke), another million in adult universities, and yet another million in two-year vocational (Zhuanke) programs.
At that point, the numbers flattened out for a few years, partially because economic growth faltered after 1990, but also because nervous Chinese authorities weren’t looking to increase student numbers after the events of April-June 1989. But the years between about 1992 and 1995 were crucial ones because they locked into place a couple of key policies – mainly, rules allowing the establishment of private institutions, rules allowing universities to charge tuition fees, and rules allowing universities to borrow. Together, those three rule changes provided the financial foundation for what happened next.
Growth came back in 1994, and numbers edged up over the decade, but the ninth and tenth five-year plans for education had bigger ideas in mind. They foresaw a system that would triple or quadruple in size by 2005. And so, more or less they did. Basically, starting in 1999, all universities were ordered to increase their intake by 50%. And again in 2000. And again in 2001. (And you thought Ontario’s double cohort was a big deal.) Within five years, the size of the university system tripled to over 10 million Benke students; adult higher education and Zhuanke enrolments grew in parallel so that by 2004 total enrolments were in the 20 million range, with about 20% of these students being educated in private universities. Since then, enrolment has gone up another 50%, putting total enrolment in the 30-million range.
Now, I lied a bit in the last paragraph. Not every institution was required to increase enrolment. The very top schools – the 38 controlled directly by the Education ministry in Beijing, and considered the “elite” of the system (with the rest mostly reporting to provincial authorities) – were put into something called the “985 plan” (China has an odd tradition of numbering plans this way – 985 just means that the plan started in May 1998), which was meant to create “world-class universities”. Basically, they were allowed to keep their undergraduate enrolments stable while, at the same time, receiving stonking huge amounts of money for research. Sort of exactly what our big five asked for in their renowned 2009 Maclean’s interview.
And that’s basically the story: from 0 to 30 million students in 30 years, and from zero to a top-tier research contributor in the same period, through a policy of a two-tier university system, a lot of public money, and a healthy dose of tuition fees. Nothing else in the history of higher education comes close to this scale of expansion of opportunity and achievement.