Global Challenges
Issue no. 14 | November 2023
The Future of Universities
Global Challenges
Issue no. 14 | November 2023
The Future of Universities | Article 9

The Sino-American Competition in Higher Education

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By virtue of its planned educational model, the Chinese higher education system allows for substantial government control over admissions, resulting, for example, in a high proportion of science and technology students. In the US, where the proportion of students studying social sciences and humanities is considerably higher than in China, the government plays a role in mobilising science and technology talent through other means.

During the Trump’s administration, the Chinese economy, when adjusted by purchasing power parity, surpassed that of the US, posing an unprecedented challenge in political, ideological and socio-economic terms, far exceeding what the Soviet Union or Japan had achieved in the Cold War, or what led the European Union (EU) to become the world’s largest single market prior to the European debt crisis and the war in Ukraine.

Source: Top 500 Universities by Region, 2003–2022. Arrepim AG based on data of the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai.

Education serves as a vehicle for hidden competition between China and the US on several levels:

– Education as a public spending competition: US government expenditure on education remains at 5%–6% of GDP (6.1% in 2020), higher than the EU (5.1%) and OECD members (5.2%). In China, this figure increased from 2% before 2000 to 4% since 2001, similar to upper-middle-income countries (4.1%). With its purchasing power advantage, China produces twice as many university graduates as the US (3.94 million vs 2.01 million).

– Education as a political ideology competition: leading universities in both countries cooperate with governments through think tanks. In 2020, the US and China had 2,203 and 1,413 think tanks respectively. The Chinese government funds them through the National Social Sciences Foundation at USD 400 million each year for about 10,000 projects. Think tanks generate over USD 1 billion per year in revenue in the US, much of it spent on expensive political campaigns averaging over USD 100 billion every two years.

– Education as a science-and-technology (S&T) competition: China’s public universities are subsidised by the government, leading to low tuition fees (USD 700 per year). Of the 851 public and 424 non-public universities and 2,000 other higher education institutions in China, 116, 39 and 36 best public universities were generously funded by the central government in Project 211 in the 1990s, Project 985 in 1998–2017 and “Word’s First-Class Universities” programmes since 2017, respectively. The leading US universities are privately run, relying to a large degree on alumni donations (e.g., around 45% of the budget at Harvard). Tsinghua University has a similar fiscal revenue to Harvard, with S&T funding at 20% and tuition fees contributing 55%, both mainly paid by government. The National Science Foundation in the US funded 13,800 projects with USD 10.17 billion in 2022, while the National Science Foundation of China funded 45,700 projects worth USD 4 billion in 2020.

The Chinese and American models of education are in fierce competition as they represent the two great powers’ different approaches to public spending, political ideology, science and technology research, socioeconomics, and talent mobilisation. – Education as a socioeconomic competition: families in both countries provide generous support for education. In China, 700,000 training institutions employ ten million teachers for extracurricular tutoring as the majority of students can only enter public universities through standardised tests. In contrast, elite US universities do not base admissions solely on scores, and middle- and high-income families have to bear the cost of extracurricular activities outside of tests. Both models result in serious educational inequality, but outstanding applicants with an exceptional record in advanced courses or Olympiads have special channels for admission to elite universities in both countries.

– Education as a talent mobilisation competition: in the 1940s, the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb employed 130,000 people for USD 25.4 billion (in 2020 dollars), while in the 1960s the Apollo Project on human spaceflight spent USD 153 billion (in 2018 dollars) in public spending and employed 400,000 S&T talents. Today, NASA still employs 40,000 experts in cooperative projects with leading universities in the US, highlighting the significant role of the government in talent mobilisation. The Chinese Ministry of Education controls admissions for each programme in each university in a planned model, resulting in a higher proportion of S&T to humanities and social sciences students (1:1.1) than in the US (1:1.84). The most popular majors in China are engineering and business, accounting for 32.81% and 19.27% of students, respectively, whereas the top three majors in the US are business, medicine and social sciences for 19.4%, 12.49% and 10.6%, respectively.

– Education as a tech-venture capitalism competition: in 2022, China’s R&D investment exceeded USD 400 billion, ranking second in the world after the US. Most R&D came from the private sector, such as tech unicorns incubated by leading S&T universities. In the Global Unicorn Index 2023 of 1361 tech unicorns worldwide, 666 and 316 ones come from the US and China, respectively. The top three unicorns in China were founded by alumni of Tsinghua, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Shanghai Jiao Tong, with the rest of the top 10 all from leading S&T universities.

The Chinese and American models of education are in fierce competition as they represent the two great powers’ different approaches to public spending, political ideology, science and technology research, socioeconomics, and talent mobilisation. China invests significantly in education, producing twice as many university graduates as the US each year, while elite universities in the US rely more on alumni donations. China’s planned educational model allows for more government control over admission programmes, resulting in a higher proportion of S&T students than in the US. Both countries prioritise education in incubating tech unicorns as a means of competing in global tech venture capitalism.

Jin Sun
Assistant Professor of Sociology, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Alumnus of the Geneva Graduate Institute (PhD 2022)

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TABLE: Roles and Missions of the University

RegimeRole and missions
Medieval UniversityServing God and Church; Serving Science
Westphalian UniversityServing Science; Serving State and Nation
Postmodern UniversityServing Society and Humanity; Serving the Market

Source: Marie-Laure Salles-Djelic, “Scholars in the Audit Society: Understanding our Contemporary Iron Cage”, in Scholars in Action: Past – Present – Future, ed. Lars Engwall (Uppsala Universitet, 2012), p. 99.

DEFINITIONS: Selection of Terms Related to Higher Education


A university (from Latin universitas “a whole”) is an institution of higher (or tertiary) education and research which awards academic degrees in several academic disciplines. Universities typically offer both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. The word university is derived from the Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars”. (Wikipedia)

Higher education

Higher education, also called post-secondary education, third-level or tertiary education, is an optional final stage of formal learning that occurs after completion of secondary education. This consists of universities, colleges and polytechnics that offer formal degrees beyond high school or secondary school education. The right of access to higher education is mentioned in a number of international human rights instruments. The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 declares, in Article 13, that “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education”. (Wikipedia)


A college (Latin collegium) is an educational institution or a constituent part of one. In most of the world, a college may be a high school or secondary school, a college of further education, a training institution that awards trade qualifications, a higher-education provider that does not have university status (often without its own degree-awarding powers), or a constituent part of a university. The word is generally also used as a synonym for a university in the US. (Wikipedia)


Apprenticeship is a system for training a new generation of practitioners of a trade or profession with on-the-job training and often some accompanying study (classroom work and reading). Apprenticeships can also enable practitioners to gain a license to practice in a regulated occupation. Most of their training is done while working for an employer who helps the apprentices learn their trade or profession, in exchange for their continued labor for an agreed period after they have achieved measurable competencies. (Wikipedia)

Information society

An information society is a society where the usage, creation, distribution, manipulation and integration of information is a significant activity. Its main drivers are information and communication technologies, which have resulted in rapid growth of a variety of forms of information. Proponents of this theory posit that these technologies are impacting most important forms of social organisation, including education, economy, health, government, warfare, and levels of democracy. (Wikipedia)

Knowledge society

A knowledge society generates, shares and makes available to all members of the society knowledge that may be used to improve the human condition. A knowledge society differs from an information society in that the former serves to transform information into resources that allow society to take effective action, while the latter only creates and disseminates the raw data. The capacity to gather and analyse information has existed throughout human history. However, the idea of the present-day knowledge society is based on the vast increase in data creation and information dissemination that results from the innovation of information technologies. (Wikipedia)


TABLE: The Top 12 Host Countries of International Students in 2022 (by number of students)


Source: Project Atlas.

GRAPH: The Twelve Countries with the Most Universities in 2023

Info Box

BOX: The Humboldtian Model of Higher Education

The Humboldtian model of higher education or Humboldt’s Ideal is a concept of academic education that emerged in the early 19th century and whose core idea is a holistic combination of research and studies. It integrates the arts and sciences with research to achieve both comprehensive general learning and cultural knowledge. Several elements of the Humboldtian model heavily influenced and subsequently became part of the concept of the research university. The Humboldtian model goes back to Wilhelm von Humboldt, a Prussian philosopher, government functionary and diplomat who, in the time of the Prussian reforms, relied on a growing, educated middle class to promote his claims about general education.

As a privy councillor in the Interior Ministry, he reformed the Prussian education system according to humanist principles. He founded the University of Berlin, appointing distinguished scholars to both teach and conduct research there. Several scholars have labeled him the most influential education official in German history. Humboldt sought to create an educational system based on unbiased knowledge and analysis, combining research and teaching while allowing students to choose their own course of study. The University of Berlin was later named the Humboldt University of Berlin, after him and his brother, the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. His educational model went beyond vocational training in Germany.

In a letter to the Prussian king, he wrote: “There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.”

The philosopher and former State Minister for Culture of the Federal Republic of Germany, Julian Nida-Rümelin, has criticised discrepancies between Humboldt’s ideals and the contemporary European education policy, which narrowly understands education as preparation for the labor market, arguing instead that one needs to decide between McKinsey’s and Humboldt’s ideals.



VIDEO: What Are Assets, and Why Do They Matter?

Additional information: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/universities-and-unicorns/.
Source: Science Animated, https://sciani.com.


VIDEO: What Are the Key Tensions in Educational Technology?

Additional information: https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/universities-and-unicorns/.
Science Animated, https://sciani.com/.

VIDEO: The UNESCO Chair in Comparative Education Policy, with Chanwoong Baek

Research Office, Geneva Graduate Institute.

VIDEO: University in Question, with Marie-Laure Salles

Research Office, Geneva Graduate Institute

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