Organization and Governance of Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) in China


Dr. Liu Baocun, PhD
Professor- Beijing Normal University

The idea for this final project came to me during our visit to Shaanxi Normal University.  Prior to this, at Beijing Normal University, Dr. Baocum gave us a presentation on comparative education detailing the history of Higher Education in China.  He spoke about the need for higher education reform in China, identifying the need for greater autonomy, academic freedom and less government involvement.  This led me to ask questions about how the government was involved and how much government control existed in China’s higher education system. 

During our first session of the day at Shaanxi Normal University, one member from the universities staff was introduced as the Party Faculty for the School of Education.  This was the first time I heard this title and it provided the opportunity for me to ask about the leadership structure at the university. 



From Dr. Baocum’s presentation, we learned that Taixue, meaning greatest learning was the first form of higher education started in Ancient China during the Han Dynasty around 124BC.  Government officials received training and learned Confucianism at the university.  Around 1898, Taixue became Imperial University and in 1902, the College of Education.  In 1989, the higher education system was based on the model used in Japan, then changed over time to model Germany, US and the Soviet Union by 1952.  From 1966 to1976, during the Cultural Revolution, the education system saw great changes.  Students were no longer required to pass an exam, high school graduate were not allowed to go to college, only children of farmers, workers and the military.  There was a lot of corruption in higher education policies.  After the death of Chairman Mao, “Deng Xiaoping centralized the higher education system in order to rebuild a system suitable for economic development rather than political struggle (Wang, 2010, p.479).”  


In the US, the government has little control over the higher education system.  This is very different from in China.  The CCP controlled the centralized higher education system in China.  The government “allocated resources, appointed university leaders, assigned jobs for graduates, decided enrollment numbers, as well as curricula (Cai, 2009, p.6).”   In the US, the government is not involved in the appointment of university staff, programs or regulating enrollment.   Similar to China, higher education institutions in the US receive funding from the federal and state government based on meeting specific eligibility requirements. 

In 1985, as part of the reform, it became clear that “excessive centralized government control and stringent rules” would limit reform.  The CCP decided to allow the local government to have some “management and decision-making power” (Cai, p.6).  However, the 1989 student movement and the Tiananmen Square Massacre ended this decision.  The current desire for globalization is once again pushing the party to release control and provide local government and institutions with more autonomy. 

Dr. Wei Zhao, the Vice Dean of the School of Education at Shaanxi Normal University speaks with Meredith and touches upon the government’s desires for internationalizing higher education in China.

Today in China, the governance of higher education institutions has two levels of control:

State(CCP) and Local (Provincial)

  1. planning and management (Provincial Government)
  2. policy making (CCP)

The State or Chinese Communist Party Structure

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) takes a “hands on” approach to governance of Institutions of Higher Education (IHE).   In 2012, China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping, called upon universities to allow the government to “play a larger role with educating and managing faculty and students.” 

Wang, 2010

Wang, 2010


 While universities have received some autonomy, the CCP is embedded into the structure in a way that allows continued restriction and influence of the party (Wang, 2010).     This structure allows the CCP to stay in control  of institutions of higher education.  The government makes decisions on tuition fees, new degree programs, appointing senior positions, all political courses, and hiring top administrators.  Only members of the CCP can be appointed to these positions.  They are the CCP guards in the structure.

The US government is not embedded in the structure of higher education as in China.  The US Department of Education recommends federal higher education policy.  The office also oversees grants process and funded programs which promote access and excellence in higher education.  The Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education, under the direction of the Secretary of Education is tasked with managing the federal student aid program, recruiting disadvantage students, and provide funding to eligible institution to improve facilities and programs.   There is no involment in by the federal government in the selection of senior leaders. 

US Department of Education Structureas posted on

US Department of Education Structure
as posted on

 Local Government Structure

At the top of the hierarchical structure is the State Council, then Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Academic Degrees Committee of the State Council (ADCSC), the Provincial Government is on the next level, then the Provincial education commission and the Provincial education supervision office.  The Ministry of Education serves as the country’s primary governing body that oversees IHE and provides direct supervision for several affiliated institutions (Wang, 2010).  The other public and private universities then fall under the Provincial Education Commission.  The ADCSC sets guidelines for and approves new degree programs and courses.  If a universities would like to add a new program, it must be approved by the government.  

Central Structure IHE China

(Wang, 2010)

Gorvernance at the state levelvaries across the US.  This is largely due to the loosely coupled system.  Typically, public institutions fall under a state appointed agency.   While enrollment limits are not set by the  state, universitites receive certain allocations based on enrollments.   Therefore, most governmental influence stems from funding and support of current political agenda.  Private institutions are independently operated and receive no funding from the state.   In Virginia, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) is the appointed agency.  SCHEV provide the Governor with recommendations of higher education policies for the state and allocates funding to state institutions.

University Level Structure

University administrators have some autonomy to hire faculty and lower level staff, make departmental changes, set degree requirements, establish course content, and most academic related decisions (Wang 2010).  The figure below outlines the hierarchical structure at the university level.

Central Structure IHE China 3

Created by Debi Butler


 These positions are appointed by the CCP and those in the positions may feel more obligated to the party than to the university.  Many see themselves as “government officials” and view their current position as an avenue to greater political appointment in the Party (Wang, p.487).   According to Dr. Baocum, there are 2409 universities in China, 1129 4-year and 1280 2-3year universities.  Of these, 353 are Adult colleges, 481 graduate programs, 274 research institutions, 698 private colleges, and 309 independent -private funded colleges.  All 2409 has a Party Secretary and some have at least one Party Vice-Secretary.  They are there to spread Marxist theories, ideology and to make sure this ideology is taught and upheld in the university culture.  They are more government officials than educators, there to keep the president and other administrators inline with the CCP policies and regulations.  At the university level, not all staff members and students are members of the CCP.   Since the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Student movement, the government wants to make sure the younger generation is being taught  to value Marxism beliefs and  ideology.  In addition to maintaining shared goals with the national agenda, I believe, ensuring that students are indoctrinated with the Marxist worldview is another reason why there is such a strong  CCP presence at the universities.   

 Department Level Structure

Dr. Wei Zhao and I after our conversation.

Dr. Wei Zhao and I after our conversation.

I sat down and spoke with Dr. Wei Zhao, the Associate Dean of the School of Education at Shaanxi NormalUniversity about the organization structure within the School of Education.  She did not speak about the working relationship or issues of power or control.  Dr. Wei explained the organizational structure, how they were appointed, and the length of each term.    From this communication, I developed the chart below.

Dean of the School of Education at Shaanxi Normal University

Dean of the School of Education at Shaanxi Normal University

Central Structure IHE China 4

Created by Debi Butler

Dr. Zhao stated that the all positions are appointed for 4 years and can be held for a maximum of two terms, 8 years.  You can find the current Shaanxi Normal Unversity School of Education positions here.  At this level, the Dean can hire new faculty and staff but major decisions on programs must be discussed with the Party Secretary/Faculty.


China’s structure is very different from that of the US and unique to China.  The current structure is one of control where universities have little freedom to make changes.  While this is true for universities under the direct supervision of the MOE and public universities, private universities have more freedom because they do not receive funding from the government.  Presidents, vice presidents, and department deans at public and MOE direct supervised universities, must discuss and seek approval on all issues with the party representative before making any decisions or taking any actions.    The CCP in so intertwined into all levels of higher education structure that it is hard to separate the two.   China is now experiencing a  slow shift in control, but universities have seen greater autonomy than in the past. 


Cai, Y. (2009). Global isomorphism and governance reform in Chinese higher education: 31st Annual EAIR Forum. Vilnius, Lithuania

Kraus, A. (2010).  The cultural revolution: A very short introduction.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wang, L. (2010). Higher education governance and university autonomy in China.  Globalisation, Societies and Education, 8(4), 477- 495