BEIJING—China may have poured billions into making its universities more globally competitive, but its idea of a quality education is guided more than ever by the Communist Party.

In a drumbeat that has accelerated ahead of October’s twice-a-decade Party Congress, President Xi Jinping’s campaign to rein in civil society, online media and speech has extended to the classroom.

Top universities seen as insufficiently rigorous in their ideological work are being shamed. Professors who speak out are punished. The government is sending observers to nearly 2,600 universities to monitor mandatory ideology classes, which include staples like “ Mao Zedong thought.”

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