In 2019, the Chinese State Council published two remarkable plans to drive continued reform in and advancement of China’s education sector, drawing on the range of preceding reforms since China’s opening in 1978.
These documents – China’s Education Modernisation 2035 Plan (2035 Plan) and the Implementation Plan for Accelerating Education Modernisation (2018-2022) (Implementation Plan) are aimed at substantially modernising China’s education system by 2035, the year the country is determined to realise socialist modernisation and become an education powerhouse.
Below is a summary based on unofficial translations of both plans, also highlighting where further plans, policies and guidelines have been announced since their release. This information may be useful for entities engaged in international cooperation efforts in and with China. Implementation of these plans is significant and occurring across all levels of government.
Towards the modernization 2035
In September 2018, President Xi Jinping remarked at the National Education Conference that China’s focus should be shifted from capacity to quality, and that the modernisation of education should support the modernisation of China.
According to the 2035 Plan, China’s broad education goals are:
1) Establishing a modern education system
2) Achieving universal attendance in quality pre-school education
3) Providing high quality and balanced compulsory education (years 1 – 9)
4) Achieving maximum attendance in senior high school (years 10 – 12)
5) Significantly improving vocational education
6) Building a more competitive higher education system
7) Providing adequate education for disabled children/youth, and
8) Establishing a new education management system with participation from the whole society (i.e. not solely relying on government support).
In order to achieve these goals, the 2035 Plan identifies several tasks including improving teacher quality and education infrastructure (laws, policies, qualifications framework, evaluation and assessment); reducing disparity and universalising access to education; promoting life-long learning; and modernising all education sectors with a particular focus on preschool and vocational education and training (VET).
The Implementation Plan sets out actions for achieving those tasks, including in areas that have been prioritised in other national strategies, for example, the integration of industry in vocational education in the “Implementation plan on National Vocational Education Reform”, the “Belt and Road” education action plan, and mid-west region development promoted in plans like “The State Council General Office Guiding Opinions on Accelerating the Development of Education in the Midwest” and “Midwest Higher Education Promotion Plan (2012-2020)”.
Under the Implementation Plan, a comprehensive evaluation system will be developed for the “Double First Class” Initiative, which has entered its fourth year. China will also implement several projects in higher education, targeting disciplines development, entrepreneurship/employment for undergraduates, and research and academic development for postgraduates.
Also under the Implementation Plan, China seeks more efficiency and transparency in the management of Sino-foreign joint ventures and to optimize the distribution of Confucius Institutes and better promote Chinese language learning. International collaboration goals appear to be heavily focused on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In both the 2035 and Implementation Plans, particular regions in China are prioritized – mainly eastern and coastal regions that have innovative development agendas such as Xiong’an, the Greater Bay Area and Hainan. In Xiong’an, priority is being given to basic and vocational education. The priority for the Greater Bay Area is to facilitate efficient exchange of higher education technology and information within the area and allow for greater mobility of professionals. Education reform in Hainan is being assisted by its Free Trade Zone status.
In China’s mid-west region, efforts will continue to be focused on alleviating poverty and reducing education disparity, especially at the compulsory education level. Vocational education in agriculture is also prioritized.
What has happened so far?
The 2035 Plan is a long-term overall development plan that covers all levels of education. Work commenced on the many goals and tasks in 2019 and early 2020 despite the COVID-19 Pandemic.
In June 2019, China had over 854 million internet users (61.2% of the population). This figure included 232 million online education users. The 2035 Plan requests “educational reform in the information age” be accelerated by building intelligent campuses and utilising technology as a tool for teaching, learning and resource sharing.
Seven months after the release of the 2035 Plan and Implementation Plan, in September 2019, the Ministry of Education (MoE) issued a joint circular together with 10 other central government agencies to set the direction for online education development into the future.
The document sets out guidance for improving China’s online education infrastructure in 2020. The internet, big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are set to be used more widely in education with a greater variety of educational resources and services. China is seeking to perfect online education delivery.
The COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 is reported to have accelerated efforts towards these goals. Most schools and universities across China were due to begin the spring semester in late January/early February, but due to COVID-19, all on-site education was postponed.
The MoE ordered “a suspension of school…not learning”. This saw 22 online education platforms consolidate resources to offer 24,000 online courses free of charge to Chinese higher education institutions from February 2. The MoE launched a national cloud classroom platform for primary and secondary school students, enabling access to study materials via smartphone, laptop or television.
At the beginning of the spring semester of 2020, around 189 million school students and 38 million higher education students were doing home-based studies using online resources. The appetite to continue to strengthen online education once institutions fully re-open and contact teaching resume is unknown.
The Chinese Government has been calling for the acceleration of smart technologies in education for some time. In 2017, the State Council released a development plan on the use of AI, including supporting AI education in primary and middle school.
A specific action plan on AI for higher education was issued in April 2018; the plan encourages students to study abroad in countries with quality development in AI, and institutions to engage in greater international collaboration on AI. Top universities including Peking University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have set up research institutes/centres on AI which commenced in 2018.
In January 2020, the MoE, together with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Finance, issued a joint circular to further promote postgraduate education in AI technology. The MoE has since announced a list of newly approved undergraduate level majors for Chinese higher education institutions. The “AI technology” major had the largest number of new approvals – more than 100 Chinese higher education institutions were approved to set up this major at the undergraduate level.
Vocational education and training
In the same month that the 2035 Plan was published, the State Council issued a comprehensive reform plan on VET.
Since February 2019, work has been underway on the VET plan’s key initiatives including Shuanggao (Double High Initiative) and the 1+x model. In December 2019, the Ministries of Education and Finance published the final decision for inclusion in the Shuanggao initiative, which listed a total of 197 higher vocational institutions (56 for institution development and 141 for discipline development).
In line with the commitment to enhanced industry integration in VET, the NDRC and MoE released a work plan in October 2019 to have medium to large-sized private enterprises run apprenticeship type programmes by 2022. Initially, 20 enterprises are expected to participate from a range of sectors including agricultural, manufacturing, ICT, automotive and shipbuilding, aerospace, steel and metallurgy, energy and transportation, energy-saving and environmental protection, construction and assemblies, finance, and social services. Shanghai is leading in this area having fully implemented its modern apprenticeship system in 2019, which it had been piloting since 2016. The pilot programme has trained over 8,600 apprentices in Shanghai.
In September 2019, President Xi indicated strong support for greater craftsmanship, particularly in the lead up to the 46th World Skills Competition in Shanghai in 2021.
Course development and curriculum design
The 2035 Plan calls for course materials and curricula in primary, secondary, and higher education to be comprehensively reformed. Content related to ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ will be added to all school education courses and strengthened at higher education level.
In January 2020, the MoE published a Gaokao (College Entrance Exam) assessment system handbook clarifying the core function of Gaokao, describing it as being to “educate individuals with good morals; serve the purpose of selecting professionals; and provide guidance to teaching”. The handbook prioritises evaluating the well-rounded development of an individual (not just academic outcomes), including a student’s morals, intellectual and fitness abilities, as well as their appreciation of aesthetics and hardworking spirit.
In March 2020, the Chinese State Council announced that “Labour Education (劳动教育)” will become a compulsory course for all primary, secondary schools and higher education institutions. “Labour education” is a component of the ‘Chinese socialist education system with Chinese characteristics’. The purpose of labour education is to “cultivate (students with) a right view of the world, life and values and develop an interest in doing labour”.
Sports and physical education
Physical education is identified as an important component of a student’s well-rounded development. The 2035 Plan specifically seeks the strengthening of sports education and the practical abilities of students. The Plan highlights the importance of people-to-people exchange in sports and art.
The latter half of 2019 saw an increased focus on sport in education. In September, the State Council released a sports development scheme – “Outline for Building a Leading Sports Nation”. Under the scheme, key personnel will be supported to study sport-related courses or receive training abroad, and collaboration between Chinese and foreign sporting institutions/agencies will be encouraged.
This followed the release of a joint circular “Plan to promote physical activities for youth” in January 2018, which laid out specific goals to be achieved by 2020, among them ensuring that students get at least one hour of physical workout every day; that sports teachers receive strengthened training; and further international collaboration in sports.
According to the 2035 and Implementation Plans, an important part of modernising the education system is strengthening efforts on “opening up” – i.e. international cooperation and exchange.
The MoE’s 2019 budget saw a 36% increase in outbound study abroad funding and an 18% increase for inbound studies. By the end of 2020, China aims to have 500,000 international students.
In 2018, there were 492,185. The top 15 source countries in 2018 were: Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, India, United States of America, Russia, Indonesia, Laos, Japan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Bangladesh, France, Mongolia and Malaysia – out of which 11 have signed Belt and Road agreements with China as of January 2020. Over 60% of all inbound international students in 2018 came from Asia and the Pacific region.
Following the release of the 2035 and Implementation Plans, many provincial governments released directives or action plans. In Beijing’s Plan, the city is set to achieve education modernization by 2035 and by 2050, the city’s education system aims to align with that in other developed countries.
In March 2020, the NDRC announced the first batch of education modernisation projects to be supported by central financing in 2020. While the full document is not public, several provinces have announced their inclusion in the plan.
Henan Province announced it would receive central financing for 300 educational projects. The projects will be funded with a total of 1.6 billion RMB (about 20 million EUR), with 56% of the funding from the central government, 23% from local governments and 21% from individual institutions.
There is a strong emphasis on poverty alleviation in the Henan projects. Out of the 300 projects 266 are infrastructure projects for improving the living standards of teachers in poverty-stricken areas; 21 are compulsory education construction projects; 10 are vocational education projects to improve industry integration; two are senior high school construction projects and two are higher education projects aimed at mid-western region development.
Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region announced that they will have 37 projects supported under the NDRC’s central financing plan, out of which 30 are related to construction of compulsory education campuses.
It is expected that more policies and guidelines at national and provincial levels will be published in the future supporting the goals and strategies set out in the plans.
Appendix – Unofficial high-level translated summary of the Plans
10 strategic tasks of China’s Education Modernisation 2035 Plan:
1) Promotion of Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era across all education sectors and in all education resources.
2) Achieve high quality education with world class and Chinese characteristics – including by enhancing moral education; cultivating patriotism; increasing knowledge and practical education; increasing the focus on health and strengthening physical and artistic/creative education; strengthening/reforming curriculum; innovating teaching (promoting heuristic, inquiring, participatory, cooperative teaching methods); clarifying core literacy requirements; incorporating IT in education; introducing education quality standards and improving education resources; establishing quality evaluation and monitoring mechanisms.
3) Promote high quality of education at all levels and equal access to basic public education – of note, a focus on rural areas; increased access to preschool; support for private kindergartens; address student dropout; promote secondary vocational education and general high school education.
4) Achieve universal access to basic public education services – including by improving access to compulsory years of education; balancing the development of urban and rural schools; improving the examination system; assisting students with financial difficulties; and enhancing special education.
5) Build lifelong learning systems – streamlining the pathway for talent growth; improving enrolment mechanisms; offering flexible learning and continuing education, and transfer between education streams; establishing a national qualifications framework; establishing a national credit bank system; expanding the supply of community education resources; enhancing education for senior citizens.
6) Training and innovation of first-class talents – build a batch of world-class colleges and universities (including national science and technology innovation bases); accelerate the development of a modern vocational education and training system with strong links to industry; explore a networked innovation alliance with deep links to industry; improve research in philosophy and social sciences.
7) High quality and innovative teachers – improve the system of teacher qualification and admission; improve the status of teachers including by improving their titles, positions and assessment systems; improve a ‘Chinese-character teacher education system’ delivered by teachers’ colleges and promote lifelong learning and professional development; increase allocation of staff and address teacher shortages in regions.
8) Accelerate educational reform in the information age – build intelligent campuses and use modern technology to train talent; establish and enhance sharing of digital education resources.
9) Create a new pattern of opening up education to the outside world – improve the level of international exchanges and cooperation, and optimize services for studying abroad; promote international qualifications recognition; strengthen cooperation with international organisations such as UNESCO; improve the quality of Chinese-foreign cooperative education and encourage high-level humanities exchange between China and foreign countries; implement the plan in support of study in China and comprehensively improve the quality of studying in China; promote the development of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms; speed up the construction of overseas international schools with Chinese characteristics; encourage qualified vocational colleges to build “Luban workshops” overseas; actively participate in global education governance and in the development of international education rules, standards and evaluation systems.
10) Modernise the education governance system – including by introducing education laws and regulations; improving government management and education supervision systems; increasing community participation in school management.
10 key tasks from the Implementation Plan for Accelerating Education Modernisation (2018-2022)
1) Comprehensive promotion of President Xi’s new era of socialist thinking in education
2) Improvement of basic education
3) Deeper integration of industry in vocational education
4) Further developing higher education- by accelerating Double First Class initiative; implementing the Six Outstanding and Top-notch Plan 2.0, Double Ten Thousand Plan, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education Reform Prairie Fire Plan, Graduate Employment and Entrepreneurship Promotion Plan; improving quality standards of higher education, the monitoring and evaluation system and scientific research and innovation capabilities of colleges and universities.
5) Strengthen teacher quality
6) Promote information technology in education
7) Implement plan for development of education central and western regions
8) Promote regional innovation experiments in education modernization
9) Promote Belt and Road education action – including by accelerating training of international talents and improving policies for overseas students to return to hometowns and commence employment; improving quality of Chinese-foreign cooperatively run schools; strengthening cooperation with BRI; optimizing Confucius Institutes and strengthen international education in Chinese.
10) Deepen reform of education in key areas – including admissions and examination reform; accelerating introduction of relevant legislation in support of lifelong leaning; support private education.