China's present higher education system was established in the early 1950s with the deliberate intention of training higher level personnel as effectively as possible for service in all sectors of the new socialist state. The model was derived directly from the Soviet Union, with the assistance of Soviet experts in both its design and implementation, and it was intended to counteract some of the well-known weaknesses of higher institutions during the previous Nationalist period: a tendency toward overly high enrollments in areas such as law, political science and humanities, which were strongly favored due to persisting values from the traditional civil service system, considerable geographical imbalances between coastal and central/hinterland regions and a degree of diversity that did not ensure common academic standards.
The new system was created initially between1950 and 1955, with a complete reorganization of old institutions and the creation of new ones around a national plan, which emphasized curricular patterns that would ensure close coordination between higher education programs and personnel needs of the state as well as a rational geographical distribution of higher education. The country was divided into six major geographical regions, and, from 1950 to 1954, each of them had an educational bureau that coordinated planning for the region. At the core of the system were three or four main types of institution that were directly administered by a new national ministry of higher education: polytechnic universities with a wide range of applied scientific and engineering programs, comprehensive universities, with programs mainly in the basic arts and sciences, and normal universities with arts and sciences programs combined with education, which were responsible for setting national standards for teacher training at tertiary and secondary level. Each region had at least one of each of these three types of institution, some had two or three, and their role was both a national and regional one. In addition to these core institutions, there were a large number of sectoral institutions, in areas such as agriculture, medicine, steel, finance, law, railways etc. They were managed by appropriate ministries and were distributed across the country, taking into account differences of regional emphasis by sector. Each institution was narrowly specialized in its programs, and its role was to train personnel for its specific sector.
Between 1950 and 1954, each region had the responsibility of enrolling students through entrance examinations, but in 1955 a national unified entrance examination was established. The recruitment base was still a selective and highly academic upper secondary education system, and competition was not as intense as it later became. A unified national job assignment system was put in place in 1956 and was managed jointly by the State Planning Commission, the sectoral ministries, and the Ministry of Higher Education, to ensure that each graduate was assigned a position as a state cadre in a setting where their knowledge could be put to good use. It was the norm for graduates to be sent far from their homes, often to serve in the development of new institutions or industries in hinterland areas.