Alongside institutional reform, the government encouraged the founding and extension of higher educational institutions and considerably increased public spending on education. Between 1998 and 2003 alone, government spending on education was raised by one percentage point of total government expenditure per year. In addition to these general efforts, the Chinese government initiated special funding programs, which aimed at providing financial support to selected institutes on a competitive basis, thereby encouraging reform and innovation. Most widely recognized was the so-called “Project 211”, initiated in 1995, which promoted the overall development of 116 selected universities, and “Project 985” initiated in 1998, which strived at creating a number of first-class universities, initially involving nine, later 39 institutions.
All these measures had a large effect on educational development. Today, a growing number of Chinese universities feature on international listings of leading universities, and two of them, Tsinghua University and Beijing University, are among the highest international rankings. In 2015, China announced a new funding program, the “Double First Class Development Plan”, which aims at developing both a small group of elite universities and a larger number of highly specialized research faculties to a world-class level by the middle of the 21st century.
In terms of the institutional setup, China generally differentiates between universities (which offer four-year bachelor, master and doctorate programs) and higher vocational colleges (providing more practically oriented three-year short-cycle degree programs). In addition to public institutions, there is a growing number of private colleges and universities. However, these private institutions hold less esteem and the quality can vary.
The magnitude of the reforms in the higher education sector is also reflected in the number of graduates. While higher education was a prerequisite of the elite in the 1980s, enrollment in tertiary education today reaches more than 50 percent of related age cohorts. However, competition for enrollment at the elite universities is fierce and the vast majority of students can only attend courses at institutes of much lower quality. Although university attendance is widespread in today's China, this only applies to the bachelor level and below, as there are far fewer master students. There is also a growing number of international students attracted to study in China. In particular, figures for Asian and African students are rising, especially for countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.
As the total number of students and the overall economic affluence of the middle class in China increases, the number of Chinese students studying abroad also grows. For many Western countries, Chinese students represent the biggest share of international students and are a considerable factor for tuition income. The United States were, for a long time, the preferred destination for Chinese students, but in recent years, alongside growing tensions between both countries, an increasing number of students shifted to the United Kingdom instead.