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PLA Education Systems

PLA Education Institutions

Throughout its history, the PLA has had three levels of education institutions as follows:

  • Schools: Most of the PLA's education institutions through the mid-1980s were schools. Around 1986, the PLA began upgrading all of its schools, except the NCO Schools, to academies.
  • Academies: The majority of the PLA's education institutions today are academies.
  • Universities: In the PLA, a university can be a stand-alone institution, such as the National Defense University (NDU), or have several subordinate academies, such as the PLA Navy's Engineering University that has a subordinate Engineering Academy and an Electronics Engineering Academy located in two different cities.

PLA Education Degrees

As the PLA has gradually moved from an education system based primarily on schools to one based on academies and a growing number of universities, the types of degrees offered have expanded as shown below:

  • Secondary technical degree, which is a high school equivalency degree in China
  • Senior technical degree, which is roughly equivalent to a vocational or associate's degree offered by a community college in the US
  • Bachelor's degree
  • Master's degree
  • Doctorate

Prior to the mid-1980s, PLA schools offered primarily secondary and senior technical degrees to officers, along with some bachelor's degrees. As of 2007, academies offer senior technical degrees to both officers and enlisted personnel, as well as bachelor's degrees to officers. Some, but not all, academies offer master's and doctorate degrees to officers. Universities offer bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees to officers. One significant trend is that the PLA is gradually moving from providing graduate degrees to academy instructors and technical personnel only, to emphasizing graduate degrees for operations personnel, including vessel commanding officers.


The PLA officer corps' recruitment process has gradually transitioned from selecting enlisted members for direct commissioning or receiving a secondary technical degree at a PLA academy, to selecting high school graduates to receive a senior technical or bachelor's degree at a PLA academy, to selecting civilian college students and graduates as officers. The education level for officers was primarily at the illiteracy level in the 1940s. As the PRC's overall education system began improving, of- ficers received middle school and high school education in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, by the end of the 1970s, more than 70% of the junior officers in the PLA had only a middle school education. During the 1980s, most officers received a two-year degree (i.e., a high school equivalency degree), three-year vocational school degree, or four-year bachelor's degree. The PLA began offering master's degrees in the 1980s and doctorate degrees in the 1990s.

Officer Recruitment

The PLA states that, between 1927 and 1949, many cadres were "extricated from illiteracy or were still illiterate." Therefore, after the PRC was founded, this situation limited how the PLA recruited its officers. One of the primary methods of filling the officer corps ranks was to provide a direct commission from within the enlisted force or to select enlisted members to attend a PLA academy and receive a secondary technical degree. This method was prevalent through the late 1970s, but, in the early 1980s, the PLA virtually eliminated direct commissioning during peacetime and has now eliminated secondary technical degrees for officers.

The second method was to select high school graduates to attend a PLA academy to receive a senior technical or bachelor's degree and then commission them as officers. This process was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution when most schools in China were closed. Since the early 1980s, the PLA has tried different programs for recruiting civilian college graduates as officers. The internal debate has focused on whether these officers should assume command positions or be limited to technical officer billets.

PLA Academy Reforms

The exact number of officer academies over time is difficult to determine with any precision, due to the PLA's changes in the nomenclature for the types of academies. As of 2007, the PLA has about 65 academies, depending on how they are counted (i.e., as one university with two subordinate academies or as three separate institutions).

The Early Years

In its early post-1949 days, the PLA had certain types of military academies that kept the initial number high but were eliminated over time. For example, during the first decade of the PRC, the PLA established "Cultural Schools" as part of its professional military education (PME) system. The mission of these schools was to teach basic literacy (reading and writing). These types of schools were gradually eliminated as the PRC's civilian education system became more highly developed.

From the early 1950s until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the PLA had about 125 academies, of which two-thirds were engineering and technical schools. Academy degrees ranged from a two-year secondary technical degree or three-year senior technical degree to a four-year bachelor's degree. As a result of the political chaos in all of China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), most civilian and military schools were closed or the courses were greatly curtailed. During this period, two-thirds of all PLA schools were closed, including almost all the command schools and half of the technical schools.

In 1968, five of the PLAN's 14 existing academies were closed, entrance policies were relaxed, the academic period was shortened, and teaching content was reduced. For example, the academic period at command academies was reduced from four years to eight months with a heavy emphasis on political training. Military training for units more or less ceased to exist, resulting in serious consequences. To adhere to some of Defense Minister Lin Biao's political education and military training regulations, the PLAN had many surface ships that did not set sail for months on end, some submarine units did not train for half a year, and flying units did not fly for many months, causing aircraft to rust. For example, Naval Aviation fighter and bomber pilots averaged less than 30 hours annually from 1965-1971, which was a 50 percent drop from the early 1960s. During 1968 alone, combat pilots averaged only 12.5 hours per year.

From 1969-1978, there were more than 70 aircraft accidents that resulted in total loss of the aircraft and 62 pilot deaths. In addition, from 1966 until the mid-1980s, technical officers throughout the PLA were not considered as important as command or political officers. In reaction to this, in January 1983,Zhang Tingfa, who was the PLAAF commander and a member of the CCP Central Committee Political Bureau, stated, "It is an erroneous, muddled idea to look down on technical cadres, and the practice of discriminating against them is seriously wrong."

Reforms Begin in the 1980s

Based on a decision made at the 12th Party Congress in September 1982, the PLA began placing greater emphasis on education for its officer corps. First, the number of PLA academies expanded to around 100. Second, to help make up for the shortfall of educated officers, the PLA trained 2,000 civilian college graduates in 1983 for one year in military schools. Upon graduation, they were assigned as platoon commanders. As the number of military academies grew during the 1980s and more military cadets selected from high school students graduated from them, fewer civilian college graduates were being recruited and assigned to command positions. Those who were recruited were assigned primarily as technical officers. However, the PLA was still concerned the education level for its officer corps was not optimal.

Jiang Zemin Implements New Reforms

During the early 1990s, CMC Chairman Jiang Zemin provided guidance to "strengthen the Army through science and technology" by better integrating military academies and civilian colleges. As such, during the 14th Party Congress in October 1992, the PLA revived the program of recruiting civilian college graduates as officers with an emphasis on technical skills. By the late 1990s, however, the PLA was still faced with an undereducated officer corps. For example, in 1997, Xinhua reported that only 43% of the PLA's low-ranking officers had academy diplomas, of whom 20% earned through correspondence courses.

As a result of this shortfall, a December 1997 Xinhua report stated that the PLA had revived the program of recruiting civilian college graduates on a limited trial basis to fill junior of- ficer command positions. For example, during that year, the PLA recruited 630 graduates, who were to receive one year of military training before being assigned as platoon commanders. By 2000, the PLA had reduced the training from twelve months down to three. These civilian college graduates were offered several inducements to enlist, including larger subsidies, higher ranks, and priority employment opportunities after their enlistment period.

According to Liberation Army Daily and Xinhua reports, since the 14th Party Congress in 1992 until 2000, the PLA had recruited 46,000 college graduates, of whom 6,200 were assigned to the General Staff Department. Although the trend today is for more civilian college graduates to assume command track positions, the majority are still filling technical officer billets.

Restructuring the Academies

In spite of the reforms and the fact that more than 700 college graduates with master's or doctorate degrees had become regiment and division commanders between 1985 and 1999, the PLA still faced the problem of what it considered an undereducated officer corps. To help solve this problem, in 1999, the CMC approved the "Plan to Adjust and Reform the Organizational Structure of Military Academies and Training Organizations," which downsized the number of academies and restructured their curricula to better meet the needs of the operational community. The 1999 reforms constructed a new type of framework for the system of academies. The old system featured the following types of academies:

  • Three levels of command academies
    • Basic for platoon-level officers
    • Intermediate for regiment-level officers
    • Advanced for jun-level officers
  • Two types of technical academies
    • Intermediate
    • Advanced
Based on the reforms, the system now consists of just two main types: academies that provide basic training and education for officer cadets, and academies that provide intermediate and advanced professional military education for officers. Furthermore, today, the academies are divided into two types: single-discipline specialized academies, and multi-disciplinary comprehensive academies. In addition, some comprehensive academies have been restructured as universities.

One of the obstacles the PLA ran into during the late 1990s, however, was that, to compete with the growing private sector for good college graduates, the PLA found it had to start recruiting students during the first couple of years in college. As a result, the PLA instituted a National Defense Scholarship Program, which is similar to the US military's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, and established reserve officer recruitment and training offices in several civilian colleges. The first national defense scholarships were offered at Beijing and Qinghua universities in late 1999 for specialties in electronics, computer science, automation, and foreign languages.

Fostering Educated Officers

In 2000, the State Council and CMC issued the "Decision on Establishing a Military Cadre Cultivation System Relying on General High-Level Education" as part of Jiang Zemin's overall guidance to merge military education into the national education program and to "train officers by both military and civilian academies." The "Decision" had two major components: recruiting civilian college graduates for the PLA, and training PLA officers in civilian colleges.

As noted in China's National Defense in 2004, the PLA has been realigning the organizational structure of its educational institutions. In recent years, the PLA has utilized military educational institutions as major platforms for training military personnel. However, a functional transformation of military educational institutions is taking place with the emphasis shifting from academic credentials education to pre-assignment training. To accomplish this, more military personnel with specialties for both military and civilian use will be trained by civilian institutions of higher learning.

These educational reforms are aimed at meeting the goals of the PLA's Strategic Project for Talented People, which the CMC implemented in August 2003. The Project proposes that in one to two decades, the PLA will possess: a contingent of command officers capable of directing informationalized wars and of building informationalized armed forces; a contingent of staff officers proficient in planning armed forces building and military operations; a contingent of scientists capable of planning and organizing the innovative development of weaponry and equipment and the exploration of key technologies; a contingent of technical specialists with thorough knowledge of newand high-tech weaponry performance; and a contingent of NCOs with expertise in using weapons and equipment at hand. The Project will be implemented in two stages. By the end of 2010, there will be a remarkable improvement in the quality of military personnel and a large increase in the number of well-educated personnel in combat units. The following decade will witness a big leap in the training of military personnel.

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Page last modified: 01-08-2021 14:07:39 ZULU