Biotechnology and Life Sciences Education in China

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BioPharm International, BioPharm International-11-01-2007, Volume 20, Issue 11

Biotechnology is definitely a hot topic in China-the country's administrators recently identified it as a "cornerstone of China's national economy by 2020." But most realize that getting there will require a better trained, specialized workforce than currently exists. The Chinese government has been pumping money into life sciences education as part of its plan to achieve a global biotechnological presence over the next 15 years.

Biotechnology is definitely a hot topic in China—the country's administrators recently identified it as a "cornerstone of China's national economy by 2020." But most realize that getting there will require a better trained, specialized workforce than currently exists. The Chinese government has been pumping money into life sciences education as part of its plan to achieve a global biotechnological presence over the next 15 years.

Eric Langer; Eliza Yibing Zhou

This article summarizes information from the recent BioPlan Associates and Society for Industrial Microbiology study, Advances in Biopharmaceutical Technology in China. We examine how investments have affected the growth of life sciences in China over the past few years.


In 1981, China outlined an educational degree system similar to that in the US. In 1995, China introduced a national strategy to "reinvigorate China through science and education." One such high-priority program is the 211 Project, which focuses on funding major universities and key disciplines in China. Based on enrollment, employment, and economic data, these programs seem to be working.


The sheer size of China's population makes its education statistics eye-popping: in 2005, the total higher education enrollment in China hit a record of 23 million—the highest in the world. There were 2,236 higher education institutions in China including 684 undergraduate institutions and 1,047 junior colleges. The gross enrollment rate was 21% (percentage of population, age 18–22, enrolled in all higher education institutions in China), with an 8.5% annual increase since 2000.1 (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Undergraduate enrollment in higher education institutions (1998–2005)


According to the Ministry of Education, by the end of 2004 there were 228 private higher education institutions in China, with a total enrollment of 1.4 million students.2 Following China's entry to the world trade organization, many foreign universities have also opened facilities in China through cooperation with Chinese private schools.

Figure 2. Graduate enrollment in higher education institutions (1998–2005)


The 211 Project has funded 100 major university construction projects and improvements in education quality and scientific research. For example, between 1999 and 2001, the government invested 1.8 billion RMB ($240 million) in Tsing Hua University and Peking University, respectively, to help establish them as competitive world-class institutions. Total investments on the 211 Project reached $2.3 billion used for key discipline creation, public service system construction, and basic facilities construction.


China's national education expenditures have been increasing in recent years (Figure 3). Despite this recent growth, overall education investment by the Chinese government is still very low when compared with international averages. In 2004, national education budget expenditures (NBEA) totaled $90.5 billion. However, this only accounted for 2.8% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The Chinese government's goal is to reach 4% GDP in the near future.

Figure 3. China's GDP and national budgetary education allocation (NBEA) (1998–2004)

The cost of higher education has grown dramatically in China. Before the 1990s, higher education was tuition-free for undergraduate students. Since then, tuition has been levied and fees have risen, and now exceed $625 per academic year. This is still extremely low when compared with tuition in the US, where public universities charged an average of $6,794 in 2003, and some private US institutions charged in excess of $30,000. Nonetheless, about 20% of Chinese university students are facing significant challenges to pay off their tuition fees, because of shortages of public funding and student loans.


Biotechnology degrees are offered at 235 universities in China, and more than 500 universities or colleges offer full biology-related programs. In 2004, there were more than 150,000 undergraduate students enrolled in biology-related programs. Between 1996 and 2002, 15,000 PhD students were enrolled in biology-related majors. Based on this data, 30,000 biology PhD students will obtain their degrees between 2005 and 2020.3

Enrollment of biology undergraduate students has increased dramatically. In 1997, 48,093 undergraduate students were enrolled in biology. In 2003, enrollment rose to 152,209.


Modern medical education has a 100-year history in China. In 1903, the government of the Qing Dynasty established the Medical Clinic at the Royal Capital Higher Educational Institute, and the level of medical education has greatly improved in terms of size, quality, and efficiency. Today, China has 177 higher medical education institutions, with an enrollment of 718,400 students in 2000, but gaps still exist. In China, a medical professional who holds a bachelor's degree in medicine and has one year of practicing experience can take the licensed doctor exam and obtain a legal medical doctor license. China has developed an evaluation system to evaluate its medical universities, however; this may lead to improvements.

Life Sciences Education Timeline


China's higher education system is now shifting its focus from size expansion to quality improvement. It faces four key hurdles:

  • Lack of funds: The annual expenses of a Chinese undergraduate is 5% of that of a US undergraduate.

  • Shortage of faculty: The current teacher to student ratio is 1:16 versus 1:14 in the US.

  • International integration: The Chinese government has promised to open higher education markets to the outside world, forcing competition.


A useful index for evaluating universities is their academic and research publications. Chinese universities have made notable progress in the publication of biomedical research papers (Table 1). From 1981 to 2003, there was a 20-fold increase in the number of Chinese papers published in journals indexed by the science citation index (SCI). In 2004, a total of 57,377 Chinese research papers were indexed by SCI, a 15.2% increase over 2003, accounting for 5.43% of all SCI papers, and ranking fifth place after the US, the UK, Japan, and Germany. SCI-indexed international papers authored by Chinese scientists reached 32,536.4

Table 1. Top 10 Chinese universities ranked by total citations of SCI-indexed Chinese papers (1995–2005)


China has experienced a brain drain since the mid 1980s as a growing number of Chinese students have gone abroad to pursue higher-level education. Many have stayed abroad for years, acquiring research or commercial experience. A survey of the life sciences school at Peking University showed that 72% of Peking University masters and PhD graduates between 1998 and 1999 chose to go abroad for further study or postdoctoral research.5

China is working to reverse this. Many Chinese universities are offering incentives to lure graduates back, including competitive salaries, comfortable accommodations, and flexible work schedules allowing them to work both in China and abroad.

Table 2. Graduate students majoring in biology and bioengineering in China

Many believe that the key to China's success in biotechnology and life sciences education is largely dependent on how Chinese universities will foster a new generation of innovative graduates. This success will be measured against international standards. With a growing number of Chinese returnees who have acquired experience in Western countries, China's talent pool is on the road to achieving world-class quality.

Eric Langer is president of BioPlan Associates, Rockville, MD, 301.921.9074, elanger@bioplanassociates.comEliza Yibing Zhou is project director for research programs on China and India.


1. Ministry of Education. Development status of China's education sector [in Chinese]. 2005, Sep 7. Available from URL:

2. Ministry of Education of PRC. National Education Sector Development Statistics Bulletin, 1998–2004 [in Chinese]. Available from URL:

3. Zhu Yuxian. Strategic thoughts on China's bio-industry talents [in Chinese]. China Biotech Industry Development Report (2004), pg 50–57.

4. Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China (STIC). 2004 China Scientific Paper Statistics [in Chinese]. 2005, Dec 6.

5. Ouyang Liming, Ou Ling, Wei Dongzhi. Market demand and training mode for biological science talents [in Chinese]. Higher Education in Chemical Engineering 2006;87(1):25–29.