Isomorphism, Diversification, and Strategic Ambiguity : Goal Setting of Chinese Higher Education Institutions in the Double World-Class Project

Kai ZHAO*, Zheng YOU

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


China has launched several national academic excellence initiatives since the 1990s, aimed at creating world-class universities. These projects contributed to the achievements of Chinese universities over the past decades and deeply influenced the field of Chinese higher education. This study focuses on the most recent Double World-Class (DWC) project and assesses the impacts of this project on the diversification of leading Chinese universities. Drawing on institutional organization theories, we analyzed how institutions set their goals for the DWC project in development plans. Findings demonstrate that on the one hand, the DWC project reinforced universities’ resource dependence on the government, which lead to universities adopting similar structures and practices. On the other hand, facing the intensified competition with domestic peers for the limited slots in the DWC project, Chinese universities differentiated their goals and orientations as they seek to highlight their competitive advantages. Findings highlight both the benefits and challenges brought by the strong nation-state policies in the pursuit of world-class universities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)841-860
Number of pages20
JournalHigher Education Policy
Issue number4
Early online date6 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Project 985, which was named for the then President Jiang Zeming’s address on May 1998, represented expanded efforts to create WCUs with intensive funding on a smaller number of institutions (Zong and Zhang, 2019). Initially, only Peking University and Tsinghua University, the two top universities in China, were selected for the project and, respectively, received an extra financial allocation of 217.65 million US dollars from the central government from 1999 to 2001 (Li, 2004). However, another seven universities joined in the first phase of the project, and these first nine founding member universities enjoyed more than half of the project’s funding. In 2009, these nine universities formed the C9 League, which was considered the Chinese equivalent of the US Ivy League (Allen, 2017). Since 2000, more universities have joined Project 985, and a total of 39 universities have been sponsored by 2011.2

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, International Association of Universities.


  • China
  • diversity
  • isomorphism
  • organizational behavior
  • world-class university


Dive into the research topics of 'Isomorphism, Diversification, and Strategic Ambiguity : Goal Setting of Chinese Higher Education Institutions in the Double World-Class Project'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this