Beijing applies brakes to construction of new universities

Several Chinese provinces have announced the cancellation of plans to build new universities, or have halted expansion plans for existing universities and colleges, due to China’s economic downturn in the wake of strict COVID-19 lockdowns, and a looming drop in the college-age cohort due to demographic decline.

Experts note that after years of breakneck expansion in the number of universities, the government is now insisting there be a focus on quality rather than quantity in higher education.

The education ministry in Beijing, while still promoting the expansion of its top universities under its ‘double first-class’ scheme to create new world-class universities, has directed the provinces to rein in construction projects for higher education after years of unbridled expansion.

Government documents point to improving higher education quality, as well as the need to improve regional finances badly affected by COVID-19 lockdowns and expenditure on mass COVID-19 testing and other anti-COVID measures during its strict Zero-COVID policy, which ended in December, as reasons to slow expansion.

Local authority debt

However, it may also be concerned about local authority debt. “Construction is in crisis and local governments are running out of money,” said a professor of civil engineering at a university in Guangdong Province who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He pointed to a plethora of ‘vanity projects’, including university campuses, in recent years when local governments had money to spend. “Strictly speaking, not all of these were needed. It was an attitude of ‘build and they will come’.”

As early as July 2021 the Ministry of Education issued a document on higher education during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25) which emphasised regulating expansion of the number of institutions and a focus on ‘optimising’ existing campuses. Some regions would be allowed to set up undergraduate universities and colleges if they were of high quality, had ‘strong characteristics’, and were moderate in scale, the document said.

Last year a number of provinces announced their policies to scale back on construction of new institutions.

On 23 December 2022, China’s northernmost province Heilongjiang issued a document outlining its five-year plan for higher education expansion which said in principle that no new ordinary colleges and universities would be established, an announcement that sparked heated online debate within China.

Population decline

“Heilongjiang has the steepest population decline in the country; there just aren’t the students there,” according to Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University Abu Dhabi, who is an expert on Asian demographics. He added that the province “does not have a lot of money”.

However, other provinces may have different reasons for cutting back on new university projects, he told University World News because demographic decline is not yet evident in China’s college-age cohort.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics released 2022 population data on 17 January pointing to a decline in the population for the first time since 1960, with more deaths than births. The population fell by 850,000 in 2022 to 1.41 billion.

However, experts note this is still some way down the line, with an expansion of the 18-year-old cohort and demand for education including postgraduate education still rising.

“The Chinese population is shrinking but not yet for that age group. University enrolment in the short term will still be going up,” said Qiang Zha, associate professor at the faculty of education at York University, Canada, and an expert on China’s higher education. “Population decline might be a later factor.”

A strong desire in China for education means the numbers going to universities and colleges will continue to rise, Gietel-Basten said.

He pointed to South Korea where the number of young people is declining, but competition to get into the few most prestigious universities “is even more intense than ever”.

“South Korea is at saturation point for higher education,” he said, but China still has some way to go, with the gross enrolment ratio (GER) – the proportion of young people in higher education – still rising.

However, when demand “starts to become a little bit tighter, it’s inevitable that the colleges which have not got such a good reputation [will] fall by the wayside,” he said.

China’s GER was 57.8% in 2021, according to the latest figures released in May 2022 by the Education Ministry – a rapid rise from a GER of 54.4% in 2020 and just 30% in 2012.

However, improvements in rural education and continued high demand for education mean the GER could continue to rise to near developed country levels of 70% plus despite the declining birth rate.

According to the ministry, over 44.3 million students were studying at higher education institutions across the country in 2022 and China now has the “world’s largest higher education system”.

Scaling back

Other provinces bringing in strict controls on new higher education projects include Guangdong Province, with the exception of the southern part of the province which is part of the Greater Bay Area comprising nine Guangdong cities, Hong Kong and Macau – an area of technology-fuelled high-end growth which has ongoing plans for new campuses to boost the country’s innovation drive.

Others will scale back ongoing projects, allowing only a few to go ahead, while barring construction of new colleges and universities where building has not yet begun. These include the provinces of Shanxi, Shandong and Henan. Experts noted Henan had been struggling with the quality of its universities for some time.

According to the online media site Sohu, Shandong province will only allow a small number of “high quality and distinctive general undergraduate universities and colleges that are urgently needed for development”, and which cater to the needs of major industries in the province.

Others such as Sichuan, Hebei and Shanxi communicated stricter criteria for establishing new higher education institutions based on industry needs.

Cyclical development

Qiang pointed to quality control and economic issues as immediate factors in slowing expansion or even shutting down new universities.

“Chinese higher education has always experienced cyclical development – a period of faster growth followed by another period of consolidation. It is quite a clear pattern,” he told University World News, noting fast expansion in 1985 to 1993 followed by consolidation from 1993 to 1998.

China’s higher education expanded at its fastest from 1999 to 2010, a period of massification of higher education, which brought Chinese higher education to the attention of the world, followed by a consolidation in 2010 as municipalities and provincial authorities fell into debt due to the breakneck expansion.

The years before the pandemic were also a period of major expansion, with the number of universities increasing by almost 400 in the decade before the pandemic. “So now this is the time of consolidation, to focus on quality control,” he said.

Qiang added that technology and trade competition between the United States and China is another factor behind the focus on quality, pointing to a ‘decoupling’ after years of strong trade links and research collaboration with the US. “Now China has to rely on its own capacity to raise the next generation talent for its own development,” he said.

“China has come to realise that for long-term competition with the US, talent competition and talent development is the focus, so quality control is now the top priority. For example, [Chinese] industry is not satisfied with the quality of graduates.”

However, Qiang sees the freeze on new university construction as temporary as it was in 2010, at a time when the Chinese economy was booming. Despite government calls for consolidation at that time, many provinces did not actually stop construction and expansion, he noted.

Experts point to broader issues that could feed into a slowdown in university construction, noting that the era of the ‘mad rush’ for economic growth has started to wane. Economic growth slowed to 3% in 2022 after growing by 8%-10% for years, according to official figures.

This masks very low growth rates in provinces such as Heilongjiang. In Guangdong, GDP growth is closer to 5%.

“The cost of labour is going through the roof. So if these things [university building projects] were planned 10 years ago, the cost of labour between now and then has probably gone up and it becomes a very expensive prospect,” Gietel-Basten noted, adding it was “not just about saying we don’t have demand anymore”.

He pointed to huge construction projects, including large university campuses, many of them feeling quite empty, airports in the middle of nowhere, and ghost estates. “It’s as much a symptom of this economic system: building stuff for local prestige [which reflects a] growing GDP, with cheap labour, cheap construction costs, cheap land.”

Guangdong province

Experts noted in particular the swift about turn in Guangdong, one of China’s wealthiest provinces, which until 2021 had a huge number of higher education construction projects slated as part of government plans to turn the region into a technology and innovation hub. As many as nine new universities have been opened for enrolment in the province in the past two years, with almost a dozen more universities and colleges on plan.

Economic experts in southern China note that the situation has changed dramatically since mid-2022, when a moratorium on new colleges and universities in eastern, western and northern parts of the province was declared as part of Guangdong’s 14th Five-Year Plan for higher education.

The Guangdong-based official Southern Metropolis Daily reported on 16 January that several new university projects proposed for the province had been shelved. They include a proposed College of Health and Chinese Medicine in the port city of Zhanjiang, and the proposed new Puning University in Jieyang City.

According to municipal documents, Guangdong’s north, east and west areas “have achieved full coverage of provincial public undergraduate universities and colleges and higher vocational colleges”.

However, one academic familiar with policies of the Guangdong government told University World News, on condition of anonymity, that Chinese-foreign joint venture universities were still being promoted as part of the bid to increase quality.

“Sino-foreign joint universities, which combine local and well-known international higher education institutions, are still favoured and will go through a separate approval process for land and construction of facilities,” he noted.

Joint venture projects

Henan provincial documents have shown that despite a general moratorium on new university construction in the province the construction of Luoyang-Ural University as a ‘first-class’ university will be accelerated. The project in the city of Luoyang is a joint campus between Russia’s Ural Federal University and Henan University of Science and Technology and is expected to open to students in 2027.

According to reports, the Luoyang City People’s Government is ready to provide the joint university with four new buildings: 58 laboratories, 64 classrooms, 30 teaching, research and office spaces, and four lecture halls with 116 seats. For the second phase of the project, a land plot of 60 hectares has already been allocated for the construction of the new campus.

Hainan, another province with strong growth, is also continuing with joint venture international universities, including the 55 hectare Hainan campus of the Moscow Power Engineering Institute (MPEI) in Wenchang in the Hainan free-trade zone. MPEI, a national research university in Moscow, is well known in China as the alma mater of the late former Chinese leader Li Peng who studied there during the Soviet era.

The Hainan provincial education department is also said to be pursuing similar deals with Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences in Germany and École hôtelière de Lausanne, a hospitality management school in Switzerland.