Two key policy goals in the reform of higher education in China over the past decade have been the expansion of higher education and the cultivation of ‘world-class’ universities (MoE, 1998). Since 1998, gross enrolment (GER) in higher education has risen from 9.8 per cent (about one million students) to 15 per cent in 2002, a level of ‘mass’ higher education, and then further to 30 per cent in 2013 (MoE). This rapid increase has been driven by government policy, market demand, the activism of local governments and the self-interest of universities (Chan and Ngok, 2011). Existing universities expanded their intake and new institutions were set up, including private colleges. As with other countries expanding their higher education systems, the diversification of institutions and levels resulted, with stratification both as a consequence and a goal. Within China’s stratified system of higher education, universities are commonly placed in one of three tiers according to status and quality. Tier 1 refers to national key universities (the élite universities chosen to participate in Project 211 or Project 985, two government-funded projects aimed at strengthening selected institutions to become world-class universities and research leaders in key disciplinary areas as a national priority).2 Tier 2 refers to key universities owned by central government agencies (such as ministries of industry or telecommunications). Tier 3 refers to all other universities, usually the responsibility of provincial and prefectural governments. The huge concentration of government funding in selected élite universities, through Projects 985 and 211,with the aim of creating world-class universities and research centres, has increased the distance between the resultant tiers of university status. Some issues of equality and social justice have emerged as a result. The concept of social justice has proved difficult to define, leading its critics such as the economist Hayek (1976) to dismiss it as ‘a mirage’. Nonetheless, it has carried meaning for many in different contexts, generally revolving around themes of fairness, equality and human rights. Attempts to define social justice lead us into a complex landscape of differing concepts and theories (Patton et al., 2010). One aspect relevant to higher education is that raised by Young
(1990), who argues that the term ‘social justice’ has become conflated with the concept of distributive justice, that is, the distribution of material goods such as resources, income or social position (Rawls, 1971). Patton et al. (2010: 268) also warn that:
we can fall into the trap of equating social justice in higher education with distributive justice by exclusively focusing on distribution questions – numerical representation of minorities bodies among faculty, students, and administrators in universities/community colleges, college access, voice in the classroom, curricula, and so on – and ignore the social structures, processes, and institutional contexts that produce these distributions in the first place.