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Seeking Excellence in the Move to a Mass System: Institutional Responses of Key Chinese Comprehensive Universities

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Since the late 1990s the Chinese government has implemented two key policies for the development of higher education. The first was launching Project 985, with the purpose of seeking excellence through creating internationally competitive universities. The second was a radical move to a mass system of higher education. In this context, China’s top universities have faced dual missions, each with their challenges: playing key roles in the revolutionary expansion process on the one hand and closing the gap between them and top universities around the world through the implementation of Project 985, on the other. It is thus important to know about how these institutions have transformed themselves for excellence through the implementation of these policies. With the three cases of Peking, Nanjing and Xiamen Universities, this paper aims to examine each institutional response and the broad changes that have come about in these top Chinese comprehensive universities. It looks especially at the divergent trajectories these institutions have followed in balancing their elite and mass education functions, their global, national and local missions, the pursuit of excellence alongside of a commitment to equity, efforts at curricular comprehensivization while preserving unique historical strengths, and finally globalization and localization. From two higher education frameworks, one based on epistemological considerations and the other on political philosophy, that are equally important in light of China’s traditions, the paper concludes that Chinese universities will continuously but selectively respond to the national expansion policy with various institutional models of seeking excellence that enable them to contribute to Chinese society and the global community in the future.


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