In many senses, the media is still state controlled in China and does not enjoy genuine freedom of speech. Yet the relationship between the media and higher education is multi-faceted, highlighting changing roles, focuses and approaches.
Roughly, three stages can be discerned.
In the first stage, from the 1950s through to the early 1980s, media coverage of higher education basically served the state propaganda agenda, showcasing government directives and opinions and how success was achieved by following government policy.
When China adopted its reform policy in the early 1980s, a market economy emerged as well as divergent interests. The media was then gradually used for communicating ideas and opinions in order to build a normative base on which further reform initiatives could be carried out efficiently and effectively.
This function of media coverage of higher education could be observed, for example, when the Chinese government was set to charge tuition fees to university students, to dramatically expand higher education enrolment and to invest in a small number of selected universities with the aim of heightening their status around the world.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, with a market economy in place and an increasingly democratised Chinese society, the media has been playing the role of a watchdog of higher education. Notably, this last stage runs more or less parallel to the process of higher education expansion.