University disciplines revamp to link closely to industry

China has announced a major drive to reform university disciplines and subjects to increase the proportion within the higher education system of programmes on new technologies and priority industries, while culling subjects that do not contribute to the country’s goal to become a global science and technology power. Some 10,000 programmes will be added.

Around one in five disciplines and programmes in ‘unwanted’ fields could be forced to close under this restructuring of higher education.

The proportion of programmes specialising in basic sciences and medicine will be increased to “serve national development”, focus on cutting-edge technologies and safeguard health, according to the plan released this month by the Ministry of Education and four other departments – the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

During the next two years some 10,000 programmes and 300 “additional centres” will be added to the higher education system, particularly in basic sciences – mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology – and subjects “with international influence”, in a bid to reverse China’s perceived weakness in fundamental science when compared to global competitors.

In addition, new public health schools will be opened in existing universities.

In a particular focus on engineering and technology and links to industry, the document – dated 23 February but published on 4 April – also outlines a plan to build 30 new technology colleges and 300 “outstanding” engineering colleges and “modern industrial colleges” while expanding programmes with “distinctive industrial characteristics” in universities.

Areas of focus will include institutions and centres specialising in integrated circuits (semiconductors), computer software, network security, cryptography, energy, energy storage technology and ‘smart’ agriculture. Of these, stepping up the number of semiconductor programmes in universities is regarded as the most urgent, according to experts.

“By 2035 the structure of higher education disciplines and majors will be more coordinated, with more differentiation [between courses],” as part of achieving high quality higher education, the ministry said, outlining an overall push to improve quality and employability.

These plans come at a time when a number of projects for new universities have been scaled back by provincial authorities due to China’s current economic downturn.

However, experts said university construction projects could be revived by repurposing them to the latest priorities outlined in the document, with preference for those linked more closely to China’s high-end industries in order to improve the country’s research innovation ecosystem.

According to the Ministry of Education, Chinese universities offer degrees in 66,000 majors. Since 2012, they established 17,000 new majors and removed or suspended around 10,000 others.

However, experts noted that the latest document is a more wide-ranging restructuring, which could see the disappearance or merger of some 12,000 majors within the next two years.

Culling courses

Some 20% of programmes deemed “unfit for socio-economic development” after inspections carried out by provincial education authorities, will be culled, according to the plan. Subjects deemed to be low quality or whose graduates have low employment rates will have to halt enrolment.

“The authorities should evaluate whether university majors within their jurisdictions match regional development, and they should publish lists of majors of high and low priority,” the document said.

Provincial education authorities would also have to track teacher quality and student satisfaction with existing disciplines – although it did not say how this information would be gathered.

An education ministry official was quoted by official media as saying that some universities had been “enthusiastic in establishing many easily managed majors with little investment”.

Culling programmes at individual universities is not new, and has been a focus in the past decade as a means of curbing low quality programmes that proliferated during a time of fast university expansion, and reducing the number of programmes with low employment rates.

Under long-standing rules, programmes are eliminated if less than 60% of the graduating students in two successive years fail to find work. As urban unemployment for young people aged 16 to 24 reached a record 19.9% in July 2022 and the number of new university graduates reached an all-time high of more than 10.75 million last year, provincial authorities have named more disciplines to be axed.

However, an academic in the engineering department of a university in Shenzhen, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “The trend of dropping programmes or setting up new ones based on the government’s science and technology driven economic plans, or local industrial development, is more recent, though it is already being implemented in some regions.

“One of the things China has been dealing with for a long time has been the nexus between research and production, or research and application,” said Denis Simon, a China science and technology policy expert at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School at Chapel Hill in the United States, and former executive vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China. “China needs to close that gap,” he added.

Improving university-industry links

Improving the university-industry innovation system is a key national priority outlined during last month’s joint sessions of the National People’s Congress and its advisory body the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference from 4 to 11 March.

Chinese leaders expressed concern that much of the country’s substantial research output is currently not translated into applications or usable products, particularly in emerging technologies and artificial intelligence.

Being able to source its own technology and turn research into products is a key plank of the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘decoupling’ from the United States in trade and technology, in the face of new US technology restrictions.

“China does need to step up its training [in key technologies] and step up its education. So, it is going through some significant revamping in the education field to make, for example training in integrated circuits (semiconductors), much more high priority,” Simon told University World News.

“We know that China is running a serious shortage of qualified talent in the semiconductor industry,” he said, referring to US restrictions on semiconductor chip exports to China, making talent development for China’s own semiconductor industry a top national priority.

However, according to Simon, among the existing 100-plus institutions in China with semiconductor related majors “only 42 actually qualify as ‘high-end’ institutions in terms of producing high-calibre graduates.

“Among a large number of institutions, the faculty don’t have ample engagement with industry to understand the needs of the key companies,” he noted.

More closely geared to industry needs

Some of these shortcomings are addressed in the latest ministry document.

For example, to keep up with changes in industry – particularly emerging technology industries – and the economy, and to better match the relevance of degrees to key industries, provincial education authorities will be required to regularly compile lists of “urgently needed disciplines and majors”, and establish a talent demand database, including “industry talent demand forecasts and graduate employment feedback early warnings”.

Industry will be encouraged to “participate in the revision and implementation of university training programmes,” it said.

Simon, who recently provided evidence on the education and training of semiconductor talent in China to the Congressional United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said in his testimony that the burden of solving the challenge in areas that China is pushing in its new science and technology plans, such as semiconductors, “falls squarely on the domestic education system”.

Gearing up the higher education system for this field is particularly urgent and Simon noted “ample evidence that progress is being made”, including in curriculum and university-industry connectivity.

However, given the speed of technological advance and the growing need for import substitution to become effective, it is likely that China’s talent dilemma in this and some other fields “will remain a significant problem for some time into the future”, he said.