Examining the race for world-class universities in China: a culture script analysis

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15 Scopus citations


In this article, we examine how the concept of world-class universities has emerged in Chinese higher education at both the sectoral and institutional level. We examine policy decisions related to creating world-class universities on China’s mainland and institutional responses to these policies. We then read these policies through “cultural scripts”—an analytic approach focused on visible and hidden cultural properties (Tan 2012, 2015) that may inform policy direction. First, we examine the intersection of Confucian values and Communist history in China as they relate to higher education. Second, we critically analyze the role of neoliberalism in higher education development worldwide and specifically in China. Third, we investigate utilitarianism as a feature of higher education in China. Finally, we draw critical conclusions about the emergence of world-class universities in China and their overall impact on the higher education sector there.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)553-567
Number of pages15
JournalHigher Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Project 211 (universities for the twenty-first century) was established in the early 1990s. The key requirement for all selected universities for the project was that they reach government-mandated benchmarks for scientific, technical, and human resource standards. Choi ( 2010 ) indicated that there are 114 universities in Project 211 that received annual funding and national research grants from the central government. The first phase of Project 211 was from 1996 to 2000 (Ngok and Guo 2008 ). During this first phase, Project 211 provided about 2.2 billion US dollars of funding to participating universities (Choi 2010 ). In May of 1998, aligning with the declaration of President Jiang Zeming that China must have first-class universities meeting global criteria, Project 985 was launched (Zhang et al. 2013 ). Compared with Project 211, which funded 116 universities for projects related to overall quality improvement, Project 985 only supported 39 first-tier Chinese universities with the aim of making them world class (Ngok and Guo 2008 ). Project 985 was facilitated by the central government and received funds and other aid from the Chinese Ministry of Education. During Phase I (1999–2003), funding from the central government to the 34 universities for the purposes of infrastructure and research development was 14 billion Chinese Yuan (RMB). During Phase II (2004–2007), the funding reached 18.9 billion RMB (Zhang, Patton and Kenny, 2013). The initial goal of all the universities in Project 985 was to pursue higher international rankings. In 2011, both Project 211 and Project 985 were closed to new participants (Zhang et al. 2013 ).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Nature B.V.


  • China
  • Culture script analysis
  • Global
  • Higher education
  • International
  • Rankings
  • World-class universities


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