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Are Chinese PhDs becoming more like US doctorates?

In a recent Centre for Global Higher Education working paper, I outline the changes that have occurred in the past decades in doctoral education in China and some of the challenges ahead, including corruption and a lack of international faculty with PhDs.

Soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country restructured its higher education system to reflect a heavy Soviet influence. Since the late 1950s, China has dropped the former Soviet Union as its overt model for higher education, but Soviet influence on Chinese higher education remained until the early 1990s.

Prior to the early 1980s, there were very few so-called comprehensive universities in China. Instead, the vast majority were professional institutions offering courses such as engineering, forestry, medicine and teacher training. These universities and institutions did not provide any graduate studies, let alone doctoral education.

Faculty members did not engage in research activities: research was instead undertaken in separate research institutes – such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences or Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, or affiliated institutes.

Both international drivers and national contextual factors have had an influence on the changes to Chinese doctoral education that have occurred. These include:

  • A shift from the planned economy to a market-oriented economy in 1992;
  • Attempts to satisfy increasing demands from society for high-level talent;
  • Attempts to enhance the international competitiveness of higher education by creating a number of world-class universities; and
  • A focus on attracting more international academics and students to establish a global reputation for Chinese research universities.

Although there is still evidence of the impact of Soviet ideas on the existing system of doctoral education in China, the shift towards a United States influence is evident and considerable.

First, with the rapid expansion of research universities since the late 1990s, an increasing number of doctoral programmes are being provided in Chinese universities, as opposed to being solely provided by research institutes. For example, in 1995 the proportion of doctoral graduates from research institutes accounted for 16% of the total, but by 2013 this had declined to 7%.

Second, the doctoral student body has become increasingly diversified, with at least three broad types of students: the traditional cohort, students in service and private doctoral students. From 1995 to 2014, the proportion of state-planned doctoral graduates dropped from 91.8% of the total to 78.4%. By contrast, self-financed or private doctoral graduates increased by 5%, while the proportion of contract-based graduates expanded from 8.2% of the total to 16.6%.

Third, the priority given to subjects such as engineering, sciences and medicine as well as the rigid hierarchical structures of academic institutions have remained intact. However, with the implementation of market reforms, there has been a growth in the number of different types of doctoral candidates, and social sciences such as management, law and economics have begun to occupy a larger share of the doctoral education sector in China.

Fourth, special attention should be paid to the fact that there has been rapid growth in numbers of professional doctorates since the mid-1990s. By 2014, six professional doctoral degrees could be awarded in Chinese universities, including stomatology, medicine, veterinary medicine, education, engineering and Chinese medicine. Despite constituting a tiny proportion of the total number of doctoral students, the percentage of professional doctoral degree holders increased from 2% in 2009 to 3.5% in 2013.

Finally, the forms and process of doctoral study have come to be more similar to the US. Despite significant differences between universities and disciplines, Chinese doctoral education and training are based on coursework and a structured curriculum, accompanied by a comprehensive examination and the submission of a doctoral dissertation.

Challenges ahead

Several challenges confront doctoral education and training in China. When compared with many advanced countries such as the US, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, inbound international doctoral students constitute a tiny proportion of the overall doctoral student population. For example, their numbers increased from 2,304 in 2005 to 12,114 in 2014 – from 1% to only 4% of the total.

Moreover, there is evidence of academic corruption in Chinese higher education at doctoral level. Many universities spend a lot of money on ‘public relations’ or use their networking to influence reviewers who evaluate their application to provide doctoral programmes.

Having permission to grant doctoral degrees not only increases a university’s revenues (through the recruitment of self-financed doctoral students), but also makes it much easier for their academics to be promoted to professor or senior researcher positions.

With the dramatic increase in doctoral students, there has also been a corresponding increase in the numbers of doctoral graduates seeking employment.

Another challenge is that some disciplines have been unable to meet the minimum standards required in providing doctoral degree programmes.

In addition, a huge majority of Chinese faculty members do not hold a doctoral degree. This will impact the quality of doctoral education even though there are much higher percentages of faculty members with doctoral degrees than previously in leading universities in China.

Finally, although there has been a steady increase in international faculty working in Chinese universities in recent years, the percentage of those international faculty members or experts with doctoral degrees is still low. At an institutional level, the percentage varies greatly, but even in leading universities it has not surpassed 5% of the total.

China will need to address these challenges to strengthen its global position in an increasingly internationalised higher education context.

Futao Huang is a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, Japan, and an international co-investigator at the ESRC/HEFCE-funded Centre for Global Higher Education, based at the UCL Institute of Education in the UK.
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