Here, I would like to give a brief introduction to the Chinese academic system. I hope to make it helpful for those who might be interested in exploring academic opportunities or even the culture in China, but who have little knowledge of how the system operates. It should be noted that some of the information given below may still be incomplete due to my own limited knowledge arising from the complexity of the Chinese academic system, but I will do my best.
Overall, the Chinese academic system is huge (a typical Chinese characteristic) and organizationally complex. It has a very large number of academic institutions, and these differ remarkably from each in aspects such as their administration, financial supports, functions and roles, geographic locations, etc. Here, I will only focus on introducing the Chinese Higher Education Institutions (HEIs hereafter, which are engaged in both research and higher education) and two Chinese academies (of Social Sciences and of Sciences). These institutions make up most parts of the academic system and implement most of the scientific researches in China.
The different types of HEIs
There are many HEIs in China. At end of May 2017, there were 3,713 HEIs in total. These are officially categorized into 3 groups, termed as Regular HEIs (2,631), Adult HEIs (282) and Non-government HEIs (800).
Regular HEIs play a core role in both research and higher education in China. A typical characteristic of this sort of HEIs is that they recruit predominantly senior high school students with national-wide unified examinations, such as the most popular (but also competitive) one called the College Entrance Examination. There are 2,631 Regular HEIs, which are further divided into 2 groups and officially termed as ‘HEIs Offering Degree Programs’ (1,243 institutions) and ‘Higher Vocational Colleges’ (1,388 institutions). The former predominantly offers degrees and engages in research while the latter primarily offering vocational education (e.g. offering transferable skills). Among these Regular HEIs, only 119 (4.5%) are under the administration of central ministries or agencies, and these are usually better financially supported and play a more important role in research than the rest.
It should also be noted that some of the universities among Regular HEIs are further involved in the so-called ‘Project 211’, ‘Project 985’, ‘The C9 League’, and ‘Double First-Class University and Discipline Initiative’. Project 211 is a national initiative which originated from 1995, aiming at largely improving the research ability and academic prestige of about 100 universities by the end of 21st century. A total of 112 universities are involved in this initiative, and all are nationally high-ranking universities that are well financially supported and outfitted with excellent infrastructure. These universities play a key role in both higher education and scientific research in China. In May 1998, the Chinese government initiated a second initiative for the Chinese higher education system, called ‘Project 985’. This project aimed at supporting a certain number of Chinese universities to make them world-renowned and engaged in world-class research. The candidate universities for the Project 985 were from those that involved in the Project 211, and were thought to be able to lead the key research disciplines and facilitate the socio-economic development of China. This initiative highlights the drive to internationalize Chinese universities, and those involved in this project are administrated by both the central and local governments. At the beginning of this project, there were only 9 core universities which are among those with highest prestige in China, and are called the ‘C9 League’. Later, 30 more universities were chosen for the Project 985, and since then the total number of universities for the project is 39 (also see official list here in Chinese). With large amounts of funding from the both the Project 211 and Project 985, these 39 universities are better equipped to conduct leading research than most others. Further, thanks to the extensive funding supports, these universities can recruit many talented scientists from the global market. Finally, in September 2017 the Chinese government released a list of 42 universities and 465 research disciplines for the largest education development scheme ever, termed as ‘Double First-Class University and Discipline Initiative’ (you can also read more here). The primary aims of this initiative are to further increase the global academic prestige of Chinese universities and improve the quality of their research. It should be noted that the universities involved in this initiative cover a much broader geographic area in China, with the initiative aiming at balancing national-wide research and higher education resources while addressing the fact that socioeconomic development in China is geographically unbalanced. Compared with the Project 211 and Project 985, this initiative is a more practical development scheme. Not surprisingly, the disciplines and universities on the lists will receive more targeted funding supports.
In short, there is a clear emphasis by the Chinese government to drive rapid growth and progress in its HEIs. This translates to a wealth of opportunities for ambitious researchers.
In China, Adult HEIs engage far less in research than Regular HEIs. Adult HEIs can accept a variety of candidates who have senior high school diploma or equivalent received somewhere else. There are totally 282 Adult HEIs, according to the data from Ministry of Education. Similar to Regular HEIs, Adult HEIs have their own unified national-wide entrance examinations for their candidates. The term ‘adult’ in the name indicates that, the candidates of such HEIs are primarily adults (> 18 in China) who do not necessarily require a senior high school diploma (which is usually awarded at or under the age of 18 after finishing kindergarten, primary school and junior high school in China) to be accepted. Adult HEIs are far less popular (and less formal and prestigious) than the Regular HEIs, and the teaching in Adult HEIs is less intensive and much more flexible than in Regular HEIs.
There are 800 Non-government HEIs in total, according to Ministry of Education. As its name suggests, these private HEIs are administrated not by governments, and engage little in research.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences
Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS hereafter) is the most prestigious research institution in natural sciences in China. It was founded in 1949 soon after the establishment of the P.R. of China. Its aim is to lead the country’s research in natural sciences and to drive national technological innovations. The CAS receives extensive supports from the country, and has 104 institutes, 12 sub-academies, 3 universities and more than 100 national key labs (see more information about the CAS here). Its institutions are located across the country, and its research strength in natural sciences is the highest amongst all institution in China. According to the Nature Index data (from August 2017 to July 2018), it has the highest AC score (article count) and FC score (fractional count) than any other institutions in China (see how these Nature Index metrics work here). The institutions of the CAS are organizationally similar with institutes of the Max-Planck Society in Germany, in that each of the CAS institutions has its own focal research disciplines and is relatively independent of others, but all remain under the administrative umbrella of the CAS.
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS hereafter) was found in 1977, before which it was a department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. CASS in China is an academic institution which primarily engage in research in the area of social sciences, policy-making and philosophy (see here for more introductory information). Now the CASS has 45 research centers and 31 institutes, which cover nearly 300 disciplines.
Academic Opportunities from Regular HEIs
Regular HEIs and the CAS implement most of the scientific research in China. As a result, they create many academic opportunities for researchers from worldwide, and across different career stages. In this part, I’d like to give a rough introduction on academic opportunities from Regular HEIs and the CAS in China, in case any of you might be interested (e.g. for a professorship, postdoc, or a PhD position).
Among Regular HEIs, universities which are on the lists of the Project 211, Project 985 and Double First-Class University and Discipline Initiative are of interests for opportunity explorers, as these universities play a predominant role in the national key research projects and provide key laboratories. As a result, these HEIs aim to lure talented scientists (i.e. academic talents, as what official Chinese term says) to engage in (or lead) projects, especially in priority disciplines. In China, recruitment programs for research scientists are increasingly popular among Regular HEIs. Some of the recruitment programs are initiated by the central government (i.e. national level, which are the most competitive ones among others), while some by local governments (e.g. provincial level) and some by Regular HEIs themselves (e.g. university level). For instance, one national recruitment program targeted at recruiting overseas talented scientists as principle investigators (i.e. PIs) is called ‘The Thousand Talents Plan’, which was initiated in 2008 and the aims of which is to ‘make breakthroughs in key technologies or can enhance China’s high-tech industries and emerging disciplines’. Many HEIs are keen in hiring leading scientists as their PIs via this program. In more recent years, Regular HEIs are increasingly competing with each other in research outputs. As a result, hiring talented scientists as PIs to enhance their own researches also becomes increasingly competitive among HEIs, as can be seen from various competitive recruitment programs initiated by different local governments and HEIs to attract academic talents. It should be noted that, each recruitment program for academic talents has its own defined rules such as qualifications for application, what title and position can be awarded to applicants, time required for working in China, and time required for teaching. Also, the awarded funding for research and salaries, bonus, housing conditions, insurances, etc. vary with programs and where HEIs are located.
Apart from principle investigator positions, Regular HEIs in China also create many postdoc opportunities. Postdoc positions are usually well funded by big projects (e.g. national ones), and most are usually advertised (online or in conferences) by labs from Regular HEIs (sadly to say that many of them are only advertised in Chinese). The salaries for postdocs also vary a lot from one Regular HEI to another, and from one project to another. My personal feeling is that the academic job market in China is highly negotiable and thus my advice is that if you find some projects are interesting but have no idea about the salary, just ask the team leaders for more details, and if unsatisfied with the salary, then negotiate.
For those who wish to do a PhD in a Regular HEI in China, the application for a position and a scholarship also differ from one HEI to another. Thus, my personal suggestion would be that, once you find some interesting research topics and labs to work on and with from a HEI, just get in touch with the lab or team leaders to ask for details such as language, scholarship, qualifications, specific procedures for the application, and even the quality of life there. Here, I would like to recommend the China Scholarship Council (i.e. CSC in short), in case you want a PhD scholarship to support you to study at a HEI in China as a doctoral student. The CSC is an organization that handles the applications for doctoral scholarships from the Chinese central government, of both Chinese students who wish studying outside of China (I am a lucky recipient of one), and overseas prospective doctoral students who wish studying in China (you can find more information on the official websites).
Academic Opportunities from the CAS
The CAS is probably one of the best options in China for researchers, whatever academic stage they are at, to engage in academic research in China, as it is very well funded and the leading Chinese academic institution. As the CAS is organizationally complex and institutes are usually independent in recruiting researchers (coupled with the fact that I have no experience of working at any CAS institute), it is hard for me to talk about how the job market of the CAS works. But fortunately, the CAS has its own well-built English websites posting academic opportunities, and many of its institutes also have websites to advertise positions in English. With these websites, you may find the most of the information about academic opportunities you want, ranging from PhD opportunities to permanent academic posts.
China’s universities and research institutions are rapidly growing in prestige, thanks to generous funding initiatives. As a result, they are increasingly attracting talented researchers worldwide, which is improving the quality of the teaching and the quality of the research. However, the academic system of China is complicated. I hope that this blog will help provide directions to some key parts of the system, and hopefully be useful for those with an interest in working in China (or those who have never even considered it) to explore the many academic opportunities that it can provide.