Higher education (高等教育gaodeng jiaoyu) in China consists of:

Degree programmes may have either a professional or an academic focus. The non-degree programmes are more practical in nature.

Degree programmes

In China students can obtain 3 types of degrees:

Students who graduate receive 2 documents:

  • a graduation certificate (毕业证书 biye zhengshu);
  • a degree certificate (学位证书 xuewei zhengshu).

Bachelor's degree

Students obtain a bachelor’s degree (学士学位 xueshi xuewei) after a 4-year undergraduate programme (本科 benke).

  • Duration: 4 years. Exceptions: 5 years for programmes in medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, architecture and some engineering and music programmes.
  • Content: general subjects (such as English and mathematics), compulsory subjects and electives. And usually an internship and/or thesis.
  • Admission requirements: senior middle school graduation certificate + entrance examination (gaokao). See Admission to higher education.
  • Diploma: Bachelor degree certificate (学士学位证书 xueshi xuewei zhengshu) and graduation certificate (毕业证书 biye zhengshu).

Please note: in some cases a degree certificate is not awarded, for example because students:

  • failed the Chinese College English Test (CET), possibly more than once;
  • did not finish their thesis;
  • did not obtain the required final average.

We compare a Bachelor degree certificate to an HBO bachelor’s degree or 2 years of research-oriented higher education (WO). This depends on the content of the study programme.

We compare a Bachelor degree certificate obtained at a Project 211 institution (up until August 2021) or a First Class University (from September 2021) to an HBO or a WO bachelor's degree. This depends on the content of the study programme.

Masters degree

Students can obtain a master's degree (硕士学位 shuoshi xuewei) at both higher education institutions and research institutions.

  • Duration: 2, 2½ or 3 years.
  • Content: compulsory subjects and electives. A final thesis or project and possibly an internship. Half of the time is for coursework (including examinations) and the other half for writing the final thesis.
  • Admission requirements: a bachelor degree certificate and an entrance examination, and candidates may not be older than 35 years of age.
  • Diploma: Master degree certificate (硕士学位证书 shuoshi xuewei zhengshu) and graduation certificate (毕业证书 biye zhengshu).

Please note: students who only successfully pass the coursework section do not receive a master degree certificate, they just receive a graduation certificate (毕业证书 biye zhengshu).

We compare a Master degree certificate to an HBO or a WO master's degree. This depends on the content of the study programme.

Master via altnernative pathway

Students can also obtain a master's degree via an alternative pathway: based on an equivalent educational background (同等学力 tongdeng xueli). The student must possess a bachelor’s degree and at least 3 years of relevant work experience.

Students must write a thesis and need to pass:

  • a national examination in a foreign language;
  • a national examination in research methods;
  • examinations in curricular subjects to be determined by the university itself.

Students receive exemptions based on skills already obtained in the field of education, research, and specific professional knowledge.

After passing all the examinations and successfully completing the thesis, students obtain a master degree certificate and a transcript with the completed examination subjects. They do not receice a graduation certificate (毕业证书 biye zhengshu).

The letter T (of 同等学力 tongdeng xueli) is placed before the reference number on the degree certificate. There is also a similar procedure for obtaining a PhD degree.

Doctor's degree (PhD)

With a master's degree, students can be admitted to a PhD programme.

  • Duration: 3-5 years.
  • Content: 1 year of coursework, writing and defending a doctoral thesis.
  • Admission requirements: a master degree certificate, an entrance examination and a recommendation from at least 2 professors or (senior) lecturers in the field; candidates may not be older than 40 years of age.
  • Diploma: Doctor degree certificate (博士学位证书 boshi xuewei zhengshu) and graduation certificate (毕业证书 biye zhengshu).

Only outstanding students can also to take a combined master’s/PhD programme (硕博连读 shuobo liandu). They are neither awarded a separate master’s degree nor required to sit an entrance examination to be admitted to the doctorate programme.

Foreign programmes in China

The Private Education Promotion Law (in effect since September 2003) made it possible for a foreign institution to offer programmes in China through joint ventures with Chinese higher education institutions. On behalf of the Ministry of Education, the Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (CRS) publishes lists of recognised degree programmes provided through partnerships with foreign partners for higher education (bachelor/master/PhD). In this way it is possible for Chinese students to obtain a foreign degree in their own country.

Non-degree programmes (zhuanke)

There are also study programmes in Chinese higher education that do not lead to an academic degree (such as a bachelor's degree). Universities and other higher education institutions provide these so-called non-degree programmes. These programmes are more practically-oriented than bachelor’s programmes and are called zhuanke in Chinese.

Graduation certificate from a zuanke programme.

There are also study programmes in Chinese higher education that do not lead to an academic degree (such as a bachelor's degree). Universities and other higher education institutions provide these so-called non-degree programmes. These programmes are more practically-oriented than bachelor’s programmes and are called zhuanke in Chinese.

We compare a Graduation certificate obtained after a 2-year zhuanke programme to 2 years of higher professional education (HBO).

We compare a Graduation certificate obtained after a 3-year zhuanke programme to 3 years of higher professional education (HBO).

Bachelor after zhuanke

After completing a zhuanke programme, students can still go on to complete a bachelor's degree via what is known as atop-up’ programme:

  • 3 years of additional study following a 2-year zhuanke programme; or
  • 2 years of additional study following a 3-year zhuanke programme.

In Chinese this pathway is called 专升本 zhuanshengben: upwards from a zhuanke programme to a benke programme.

Types of higher education institutions

Students can take higher education programmes (高等教育 gaodeng jiaoyu) at institutions called ‘university’, ‘college’ or ‘school’. A distinction is drawn between:

  • regular institutions; and
  • adult education institutes.

Regular institutions

Regular institutions are those that admit students based on the national entrance exam (高考 gaokao). They also include:

  • research institutes
  • independent colleges
  • private education institutions

Research institutes

These are prominent national umbrella organisations that incorporate multiple research institutes:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS);
  • Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS);
  • Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS);
  • Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences (CAGS).

The degree certificates and graduation certificates they issue are nationally accredited. Rather than falling under the Ministry of Education, each of these institutions belongs to the ministry governing the relevant field of research.

Independent colleges

Independent colleges (独立学院 duli xueyuan) are institutes that work in conjunction with social organisations and private institutes. They are not subsidised by the government, and students therefore pay higher tuition fees than at public education institutions.

In 2008, independent colleges also became authorised to issue their own bachelor degree certificates. Before that time, these certificates and degrees were issued by the university with which the independent college was affiliated.

Private education institutions

Private (民办 minban) institutes are those run by organisations such as businesses, institutions or other bodies. They are not subsidised by the government.

Certificates and diplomas issued by private institutions:

  • Accredited private institutions can issue graduation certificates and degree certificates recognised by the Ministry of Education.
  • Non-accredited private institutions issue a diploma known as an ‘institute diploma’. Their students can only obtain an official degree certificate by completing a national exam, just like the students wishing to sit the exam after self-study (for further information, please see below ‘Independent study’).

Adult education institutes

Institutes of adult education admit students who did not pass the national entrance exam (高考 gaokao) for higher education. The government has declared the level of graduation certificates obtained via adult education (成人教育 chengren jiaoyu) to be equivalent to that of the graduation certificates obtained at regular institutions.

Among other ways, these programmes are offered via:

  • radio and television, by organisations known as ‘radio and television universities’ (广播电视大学 guangbo dianshi daxue);
  • evening classes or correspondence courses run by regular institutions;
  • independent study.

There are 3 levels of adult education:

  • secondary vocational education (中专 zhongzhuan);
  • non-degree higher education (专科 zhuanke);
  • undergraduate education (bachelor, 本科 benke).

Independent study

When completing independent study (自学 zixue), students can take exams in various subjects twice per year. They receive unit certificates for each subject completed. There are no entrance requirements for taking the exams. Via independent study, students can complete a non-degree programme or a bachelor's programme.

Once all units of study are complete, students receive a graduation certificate, which is stamped by the provincial independent study committee, and sometimes also by the institution that administered the exams.

Graduation certificates obtained via independent study are considered equivalent to comparable diplomas obtained via regular higher education.

Like students from non-accredited private institutions, independent-study students can obtain an official degree certificate by taking a national exam.

Admission to higher education

Admission to higher education is mainly based on the result of the national entrance examination (高考 gaokao).

Entrance examination: gaokao

Once a year, provincial-level examination authorities conduct the national entrance examination, the gaokao. To take part in the entrance examination, students must have a senior middle school graduation certificate. In general, students with a vocational senior middle school graduation certificate are officially allowed to take the gaokao. However, the entrance examination scores of pupils with this certificate are generally lower than those of pupils with a senior middle school graduation certificate, mainly due to the more limited number of general subjects in the programme. For more information on gaokao-scores, see Assessment systems.

Gaokao: the 3+X model

From 2003 to 2020, the content of the national entrance examination (gaokao) was based on the so-called 3 + X model:

  • The number ‘3’ stands for the number of compulsory examination subjects (Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language).
  • The letter 'X' for the following 6 subjects: chemistry, physics, biology, politics, history, and geography.

Every provincial-level examination authority was able to choose its own combination from these 6 subjects. Usually, 3 standard combinations were chosen:

  • humanities (3+文科综合), consisting of politics, history, and geography;
  • science (3+ 理科综合), consisting of physics, chemistry, and biology); or
  • a combination of humanities and science.

Gaokao: the 3+3 model

From 2018 onwards, the provinces are gradually introducing a new model: 3 + 3. The 6 subjects (of the X) are replaced by 3 separate electives. Most provinces have now switched to this model.

With this new model, there is no longer a distinction between the 2 profiles humanities and science. Pupils can now choose from the subjects politics, history, geography, physics, chemistry and biology. They let the choice depend on the admission requirements for the desired degree programme.

Admission without gaokao

It is not always necessary to take the gaokao. There are alternative routes for admission to higher education in China:

  • Adult education: when someone passes the National Adult Higher Education Entrance Examination (成人高考 chengren gaokao).
  • Baosong: if a student has a baosong (保送) because of extraordinary results. A baosong is a special recommendation from the school to the university of his/her choice.
  • Private institution: some private institutions accept all students who can afford the tuition fees.