The new schools have flooded China’s big cities, spilling over into places such as Oriental University City, a complex here in the Hebei province, an hour south of Beijing. It has 14 private universities, one shared library and a handful of fast-food restaurants to feed tens of thousands of students.
“Everyone wants to have an education, but the ability of the country is limited. Public universities cannot meet the need,” said Rao Dujun, director of the international office at the private Xi’an International University in the Shaanxi province of central China. “This is why private universities can emerge.”
The number of private universities in China has soared to more than 630, up from 20 in 1997, according to a 2010 analysis from the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. In all, the private institutions enrolled about a fifth of Chinese college students in 2008.
Private university administrators and critics of the schools have warned that as China’s population growth slows, the boom in private universities may subside and only the best ones will survive. Some have amassed enormous debt from purchasing land and building facilities. But these schools have been integral to the expansion of Chinese higher education.
In the late 1990s, fewer than 10 percent of Chinese age 18 to 22 were enrolled in higher education, according to government data. Now the figure is about 27 percent — or 30 million students — and the government hopes to reach 40 percent by 2020. If China is successful, it will have more than 40 million students in college. That would be roughly double the projected total for the United States. The U.S. population, however, is significantly lower than China’s.
In China, a college degree is often crucial for upward mobility. Competition is intense for available spots. By contrast, the United States is focused on persuading students to enroll in college and to stay and complete degrees once they do.
Higher education in China was gutted during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, but has been built up again. In 1999, the authoritarian Communist government decided to remove restrictions on the private sector of higher education in an effort to propel economic growth.
In 2003, the government permitted private schools to partner with public universities. Although still self-funded and self-governed, these new “independent schools” gained some prestige through the associations while also helping public universities deal with overflow.
Unlike their public counterparts, private universities across China emphasize practical skills over theory. The Civil Aviation Management Institute, for instance, teaches security guards-to-be to operate metal detectors. Students in Xi’an International’s automobile college learn how to fix cars, whereas at a public university they might learn how to design them.