The Chinese National Top Level Courses Project: Using Open Educational Resources to Promote

Massification of higher education, and prestige projects

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Massification of higher education, and prestige projects

In 1993, the Ministry of Education released the “Outline for Reform and Development of Education”, which focused on building up approximately 100 key universities and a number of key disciplines. Project 211, which was mentioned in this plan, was launched through the project “Reform Plan of Teaching Contents and Curriculum of Higher Education Facing the 21st Century” in 2004, which ratified the establishment of 211 big projects and nearly a thousand sub-projects with tens of thousands teachers participating. The plan covered areas of teaching such as teaching ideology, teaching contents, curriculum structure and teaching methodology, and was supported by an advisory group of domestic experts from all disciplines (MoE 2010).

According to Futao Huang (2005), the main objectives were to intensively finance Peking University and Tsinghua University to enable them to become world-class universities, to enhance the quality of 25 other leading universities, and to improve the quality of over 300 key disciplines in different institutions. During the first phase, from 1996 to 2002, about 18.3 billion RMB was allocated from the central government, and by September 2004, 99 universities had been selected and given special support by the government (Huang 2005).

This was followed by an “Action Plan for Education Promotion for the 21st Century” in 1998, which mentioned a number of large projects, such as the “Project for Creating Talented People with a High Level”, the “Plan for Creating the Most Excellent Universities and Disciplines in the World”, “Modern Long-Distance Education”, and the “Project for Industrializing the High Technology in the Universities” (Huang 2005). The Action Plan also launched project 985, which again began by funding Peking University and Tsinghua University intensively. In July 1999, the Ministry of Education added seven more institutions, and by 2010, it had funded 43 universities.

1998 also saw the beginning of a large scale increase in enrolment in Chinese higher education, with the Ministry of Education releasing the “Action Plan to Vitalize Education Facing the Twenty-First Century”. This plan set targets for educational reform and development until 2010, and stipulated a large increase in enrolment. In 1999, Chinese higher education institutions enrolled 4.5 million students, and by 2010, this number has increased to almost 30 million (Pretorius and Xue 2003; Shen 2010). In terms of coverage, the higher education system has gone from covering 3.5% of the cohort in 1991 to 22% in 2002, while the average institutional size quadrupled from 2,381 to 8,715 students (Li and Lin 2008). Since 2003, China has also had the world’s largest national higher education system (UNESCO 2003).

The final large trend during the 1990s was university mergers. The higher education system had been patterned after the Soviet Union, as has been shown in the early part of this chapter, and thus it had a large number of very specialized universities. Many of these were now compelled to join together to form large comprehensive universities (Mao, Du and Liu 2009).

Preparing the way for the Top Level Courses Project

This chapter has summarized developments in Chinese higher education during the last 60 years, to show the factors that may have enabled the Top Level Courses Project to develop in the way it has. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet system of higher education was imported whole-sale through Russian experts, and translation. From 1950 to 1976, there was a constant struggle between the extreme left, and the moderate factions, leading to excesses like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. During these periods, education became much more localized and applied. However, once the disruption was over, the system quickly reverted to the stable centralized and highly controlled model, which lasted until the reform period at the end of the 1970’s, and beginning of the 1980’s. The gradual opening up of courses, and increased autonomy for individual universities and professors was immediately followed by the development of course evaluation systems.

Throughout the whole period, there has been a tension between equality and excellence. While the 1990’s and 2000’s have seen a large growth in the entire system, there have also been a number of important projects that directly fund excellent units. The 211 Project not only selected the top universities in China, but also the top departments, all of this through a peer review process. In the next chapter, I will argue that the Top Level Courses Project can be understood as a natural extension of this, going from selecting and funding excellent universities, to selecting and funding excellent departments, to selecting and funding excellent courses. These courses are then held up as examples to others, and because of the advent of the Internet, courses are also published online – which fits perfectly with the strong push for use of IT in education which has been present since Project 211. The next chapter will discuss the Top Level Courses Project in detail.

Chapter 5: Description of the Top Level Courses Project


This chapter will give an in-depth description of the Top Level Courses Project. I will first give a birds-eye view of how the project is organized. I will then use a number of case studies to discuss how the application and evaluation process works, seen from the eyes of individual professors, academic affairs staff, and leaders in the program.

In 2001, the Ministry of Education released a document called “Some ideas about strengthening undergraduate teaching and improving pedagogy in higher education” (MoE 2001). This document laid out the case for an improved focus on teaching, including an increase in financial resources, and encouraging more full professors to teach undergraduate courses. Teaching quality was to be made an important criterion for promotions, young academics were to receive special training in teaching and pedagogy, and more courses were to be taught in English, or a mix of English and Chinese. The final two recommendations are particularly relevant to the Top Level Courses Project: more educational technology was to be applied in education, and the document also called for the establishment and improvement of teaching quality monitoring and assurance systems.

In April 2003, the National Top Level Courses Project was formally launched by the Ministry of Education (MoE 2003). It set forth a plan to use the development, selection and publication of Top Level Courses to carry out the goals of the 2001 policy mentioned above, to which it made explicit reference in its justification. The creation and evaluation of these model courses would act as a catalyst and promote the improvement of all courses, raising the general importance of pedagogy and teaching within universities. The policy called for all universities to design a comprehensive plan for how the project would be implemented, to make sure that it raised the quality the teaching at the entire university.

The head of the academic affairs office at University B (B0) explained that enrolment in Chinese higher education had begun expanding rapidly from the year 1999, transitioning from elite education to mass higher education. This expansion happened too fast, and there was not sufficient equipment or teachers available. According to Mr. B0, this led to society doubting the quality of instruction. The Top Level Courses Project was designed as a way to make universities and individual professors care more about the quality of instruction.

Professor B3 puts the project into a historical perspective, and shows how it was the natural consequence of a trajectory that had begun with the Ministry of Education first focusing on evaluating the best national universities, and increasing their funding. The second step had been to identify national key disciplines, so that a given university would have educational technology as its key discipline, another economics. These were also peer-reviewed, and implied increased funding, and a responsibility to lead the development of that particular field. However, a discipline is still very broad, so finally the Ministry of Education decided to evaluate individual courses.

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