Universities across China are raising their tuition fees as the academic year begins, in a move that some academics believe could signal a shift to a Western-style market system.
After roughly a decade of stagnant fees, this year dozens of institutions have announced hikes — at some, charges have gone up by more than 50 percent compared with last year. Experts say such rises had been a long time coming, after years of relatively cheap education and growing financial pressures on institutions.
At the East China University of Science and Technology, annual tuition fees for 2023-24 have climbed from RMB 5,000 (Rs.56,802) to RMB 7,700 (Rs.87,477) — a 54 percent rise. At Shanghai University of Electric Power, the standard tuition fee, previously capped at RMB 5,000, has been raised to RMB 7,000.
A number of local educational authorities have also adjusted their guidance to universities, with Shanghai, Jilin and Sichuan among the provinces that have announced similar adjustments since January. China’s government had sought to hold fees low for many years in a bid to promote higher education’s expansion, ordering a five-year freeze in 2007 in response to universities’ increases. There was another round of hikes in 2014, but fees have remained largely stable since then.
If such increases become widespread, they could bring China closer towards a Western-style higher education system, where the cost of study is tied more closely to demand, some scholars believe. “I think this sort of market mechanism…will eventually be the norm in Chinese universities, especially as they’re gearing up to be a world-class university system,” says James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania.
According to Chin, such a change might also help to prepare institutions to take in “a lot more” international students. “Right now, most of the international students studying in Chinese universities go to only the elite universities. I suspect they want the number to spread wider, with more…going to non-elite universities, especially the regional universities, places like Hunan, which is not widely known,” says Chin.
Edward Vickers, who researches contemporary history of education in Chinese societies at Kyushu University, says there was “already an element” of the market system at play, with China’s elite public universities tending to charge less than private ones — and cost often having an “inverse relationship” with quality or prestige of universities. But he believes the recent fee changes has more to do with China’s economic stagnation.
This policy shift is fundamentally related to growing concern in government circles over very high levels of unemployment among educated youth in China’s cities. “It is actively seeking to deter many young people from pursuing university education, because it fears the socially and politically destabilising effects of increasing graduate unemployment,” says Vickers.
Other scholars are less convinced that China’s higher education system is heading towards marketisation. “The vast majority of students will not go to cheaper universities or not go to university because of tuition increases,” says Futao Huang, professor of higher education at Hiroshima University.
Still, universities should take care not to overshoot the mark, warns Chia-Ming Hsueh, vice-dean of the Office of International Affairs at Minghsin University of Science and Technology in Taiwan. “Raising tuition fees also depends on market acceptance. I believe that people are willing to spend money on education that is expensive but worthwhile…however, if the value provided differs from the increased tuition, it could result in enrolment difficulties,” he warns.