Higher education quality assurance in China: student satisfaction needs to be strengthened

GaoAuthor: Guijuan Gao

As the practices of quality assurance in higher education develops, questions about how to manage quality become increasingly important. The trend in managing quality in higher education is to take account of student engagement and learning outcomes (Coates, 2005), as well as to address the desire to improve students’ satisfaction with the educational process (Hall, et al., 2012). This trend is worldwide.  A good example is current practice in the US, where the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is conducted. NSSE annually collects information at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities about first-year and senior students’ participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and personal development. The results provide an estimate of how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college (see: http://nsse.indiana.edu). In the Netherlands, every year, almost all students in Dutch higher education are invited to participate the National Student Survey (NSE, Nationale Studenten Enquête, see: http://www.studiekeuze123.nl/nse), a nationwide survey researching students’ satisfaction with the higher education course they are pursuing. In the UK, the National Student Survey (NSS, see: http://www.thestudentsurvey.com) has been conducted annually since 2005, which is a high-profile census of nearly half a million students across the UK. All these student surveys are well organized and strongly supported. For example, the National Student Survey (NSS) in UK is widely recognized as an authoritative survey, commissioned by the higher education funding councils across the UK, while the Dutch NSE is linked to a student information website (http://www.studiekeuze123.nl) co-sponsored by the higher education institutions as well as the ministry of education.

In China, college enrollment has been expanding since 1999. The rapid development of higher education in China has caused great public concern about its quality. In response, the Chinese government shifted its focus from quantitative expansion to an emphasis on quality. In 1999, the Ministry of Education introduced ‘Random Level Assessments’. In 2002, the Ministry of Education issued a ‘Work Plan on Undergraduate Teaching Level Evaluation’ to evaluate undergraduate teaching level among colleges and universities every 5 years. In 2007, just before the first run of the undergraduate teaching level evaluation was finished, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance jointly issued ‘Opinions on Implementing a Project on Undergraduate Teaching Quality and Teaching Reform of Institutions of Higher Education’. The above efforts for quality assurance in higher education are made by the Chinese government. In other words, the quality assurance systems are mainly controlled by the government. It has been argued that the Chinese government was sole quality assurance actor to control the whole process of higher education, and that quality standards lack diversity (Wang & Hao, 2010).

In China, although currently there are surveys on student-centred learning, such as the ‘China College Student Survey’ (CCSS) conducted by Tsinghua University (Shi, 2016), and the National College Student Survey (NCSS) conducted by Research Institute for Higher Education Quality and Evaluation, Xiamen University (Wang & Yang, 2015), these studies are actually conducted by individual researchers as one of their research projects. Students’ opinions have not been taken into consideration persistently, nor on a large scale in China’s higher education quality assurance systems, which are mainly closed systems between the government and higher education institutions.

The trend that highlights student satisfaction in higher education quality assurance is justifiable as some researchers argue that in today’s world of intense competition, the key to sustainable competitive advantage lies in delivering high quality service that will result in satisfied customers (Dimas et al., 2011). Besides, ways of managing quality can be different, mainly depending on the definition of quality used. Amid the wide gamut of definitions of quality, they all deal either with the product/services or the services producing these products/services. The perspective of the product/services, is a perspective relevant to Total Quality Management (TQM). According to TQM and many other approaches to quality assurance, the primary customer in an education system is the student, who is both an internal and an external customer. While in the system, the student is an internal customer, participating in the learning process; he or she becomes an external customer when leaving the system. The student then becomes the ultimate external customer, functioning effectively in society (Sahney et al., 2004).

Based on the thoughts above, student satisfaction needs to be strengthened in China’s higher education quality assurance to make a decisive step in quality enhancement. Otherwise, Chinese higher education runs the risk of losing its customers, for as a vivid popular saying around the world has it, Students in search of education quality will ‘vote with their feet’, which academically means student mobility. Actually, this is happening already: more and more Chinese students choose to study in ‘world class’ universities abroad. And the question remaining will be, will they ever come back?


Hamish Coates. The value of student engagement for higher education quality assurance, Quality in Higher Education, Vol.11, No.1, 2005, pp 25-36.

Cathy Hall, William Swart, and Steve Duncan. Balancing customer needs and standards in higher education, Quality Approaches in Higher Education, Vol. 3, No.1, 2012, pp2-7.

Wang, Youhang & Hao, Qing. Chinese government takes pains to ensure the quality of higher education, Journal of Higher Education management, Vol. 4, No.1, 2010, pp 12-17. (In Chinese)

Shi, Jinghuan. Governing the quality: current and future development of the student survey in China, China Higher Education Research, No. 2, 2016, pp 37-41. (In Chinese)

Wang Yashuang & Yang Xiaojiang. An empirical study of student satisfaction in the high level universities—based on the data analysis of NCSS, Journal of National Academy of Education Administration, No.2, 2015, pp 77-82. (In Chinese)

Sangeeta Sahney, D.K. Banwet and S. Karunes, “Conceptualizing total quality management in higher education”, The TQM Magazine, Volume16, Number 2, 2004, pp. 145-159



About Guijuan Gao

Guijuan GaoGuijuan Gao completed a PhD at Huazhong University of Science & Technology (HUST), China, is an associate professor in the Higher Education Research Institute and a part-time researcher in the Center for Germany Study, Tongji University, Shinghai, a column writer on innovation and entrepreneurship education for a Chinese think-tank. Her research area is higher education policy and management focusing on higher education quality assurance, academic governance, innovation and entrepreneurship education. She had visits as a visiting scholar in School of Education Studies, Ohio State University, US (September 2013 to September 2014) and guest researcher at CHEPS, University of Twente (March 2016). She can be contacted by Email address: gjgao@tongji.edu.cn.

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