The closing of China will affect universities worldwide

The news that China’s constitution will be amended so that Xi Jinping can be president beyond his current second term is only the latest indication of fundamental political change taking place. Experts have noted that President Xi has amassed the most power since Mao Zedong and seeks long-term authority to carry out his policies.

While higher education, research and internationalisation are far from the centre of contemporary political developments, they will unquestionably be affected and may be ‘collateral damage’.

Over the past several decades, we have seen a dramatic growth in higher education internationalisation, student mobility in and out of China and the cross-border presence of foreign universities in China, all contributing to the establishment of world-class universities and a significant rise of Chinese universities in the rankings.

Current changes at the top in China will have lasting implications for both Chinese higher education and for China’s academic relations with the rest of the world and might seriously impact what has been accomplished so far. It is essential that the higher education community, inside China as well as globally, pay careful attention to the likely prospects.

Internal developments

When considered together, recent developments show significant change in the Chinese academic landscape. The internet has been tightened, making it more difficult to access information freely. Virtual Private Networks used to permit reasonably easy access to the global internet for those able to manipulate the system – but this is no longer the case. In addition, many have noted that more material considered ‘sensitive’ has been eliminated from the web in China.

While such restrictions affect the social sciences most directly, the entire academic community is impacted by both the perception and the reality of a lack of access to the world’s knowledge.

While Communist Party supervision of universities has traditionally been a central part of academic governance, it has recently been strengthened. The role of ideological education as part of the university curriculum has been enhanced, including the addition of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’.

Emerging programmes of United States-style liberal education at some of China’s elite universities have come in for criticism and some academics are trying to think of a less ‘provocative’ name and perhaps making changes in the relevant curriculum.

External reactions

There has also been some reaction against aspects of China’s higher education internationalisation initiatives.

Criticism of some of the more than 480 Confucius Institutes established by the Chinese government worldwide and primarily located on university campuses, is growing, and a few have been closed down by host institutions. There has also been criticism of what is seen by some as heavy-handed Chinese involvement in Africa, including in higher education.

A major controversy is taking place in Australia, where Chinese agencies are accused of trying to influence Australian researchers working on China and of engaging in other perceived interference, as well as putting pressure on Chinese students in that country, as well as elsewhere, to spy on fellow students and scholars.

A Dutch university cancelled a planned branch campus in China after concerns about academic freedom were raised in the Netherlands.

And a storm of protest took place when a prominent British publisher eliminated some content from its journals which was deemed objectionable by Chinese authorities. The content was restored after complaints by Western academics.

What is significant here is that Chinese authorities are increasingly attempting to interfere overseas – and that there is growing pushback by Western academics and institutions.


Of course, the most important implications of a ‘closing’ of Chinese higher education will be for Chinese universities. It will be more difficult for the top institutions to achieve true ‘world-class’ status if their academic culture is infused with restrictions, problematic access to knowledge and constraints on the emergence of a truly free and innovative academic culture.

A restrictive academic environment will make it more difficult to attract talented foreign faculty to work in China and it is likely that international students, especially at the graduate level, will be reluctant to study in China.

In recent years there has been an increase in the return rate of Chinese students and scholars who have studied abroad, according to the president of the National Natural Science Foundation of China. “Just 10 years ago, the flow of talent was at about seven Chinese students leaving for every one that came back. Now it’s six [students] returning in every seven,” he said, adding: “The brain drain is almost over.”

This trend is unlikely to continue as circumstances change. Further, that comment was limited to STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and mainly to undergraduates. According to most statistics, 70% to 80% or more of Chinese doctoral degree holders are not returning home – a share that has been holding steady.

A change of direction

After decades of attempting to create a more open academic environment, it is clear that China is rapidly changing direction. This new direction is inevitable, given recent political developments.

China’s investment of billions of dollars in the upgrading of its top universities to create ‘world-class’ institutions may be, at least in part, at risk. China’s internationalisation efforts of recent years will be significantly damaged. The investments made by Western universities in developing branch campuses and other academic relationships in China may be threatened – and are very likely to slow down.

China’s efforts to convince Chinese students who have studied abroad to return, particularly those at the masters and doctoral levels, will have less success as many question what is happening to academic life in China.

Following Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States and the general challenges of nationalism and populism globally, we are entering uncharted academic territory. China, however, is different. There are few dissident voices and no challenges to central authority.

In the end, there might be losses on both sides. Chinese universities will be seriously hampered in their move towards world-class standards; academic freedom will be further away than ever; and collaboration with Western universities will become more difficult.

The Chinese authorities seem not to worry much about these risks. They look more to higher education in emerging and developing countries, which as a sector is perhaps more dependent on collaboration with China. In the end, China may end up in a gigantic peripheral zone.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director, and Hans de Wit is professor and director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. Emails: and