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Merit or Money? Causes and effects of educational inequality in the PRC

“In China, which pioneered the use of merit‑based examinations to fill official positions, an educational system that was once a great equalizer now reinforces inequality.”

 –Helen Gao, China’s Education Gap

In an increasingly competitive and globalized job market, it is obvious why parents who can afford to will confer the advantages of wealth onto their children. This is especially true in China, where education has long been regarded as a ladder for social mobility and the pressures of getting into a prestigious university are higher than ever.

Some, like the China-focused journalist Helen Gao, consider that education in its ideal form serves as a “great equalizer” through which students of all backgrounds can participate to become prosperous, but it can also be all but inaccessible to the already under-resourced. As is seen in China and elsewhere, unequal distribution of educational opportunities is one way that wealth and power is concentrated into the hands of an already-tiny elite, and this is not a unique phenomenon. Higher education in the People’s Republic of China is one such case where family socioeconomic status, educational achievement, and dignified jobs go hand in hand (Li, 2016)—against the mandate of the world’s sustainable development goals of quality education, reduced inequalities, and decent work[1].

There are many reasons why the rural and poor in China are not receiving the benefits that the urban rich do in terms of educational inputs and economic outputs:

  • the hukou [household registration] system, which is a residency status that determines a person’s access to social services like schools[2], and one that also prevents legal rural-to-urban migration (Fu & Ren, 2010);
  • the lopsided financing of rural schools versus urban (Li, 2016);
  • a historical culture of “persisting educational elitism” and the competitive nature of private tutoring (Zhang & Bray, 2017);
  • and the direct correlation between gaokao [college entrance examination] scores and access to both elite universities and well-paying jobs (Zhang, Li, & Xue, 2015).

Education inequality between rural and urban areas is not uncommon in many parts of the world, but institutional exclusion has been exacerbated by the privatization of educational opportunities in the PRC, which in the end affects the livelihoods of those who are shut out of the system and the economic growth prospects of the nation as a whole.

Extensive private tuition…exacerbates social inequalities.

—Francoise Caillods, UNESCO

Playing a role in the exacerbation of education inequality in China is the presence of private tutoring, which has grown into a huge industry since Deng Xiaoping proclaimed China’s “reform and opening up” to de-collectivization, competition, foreign investment, and privatization in 1978. In the 1990s, private education started to become an area of interest for foreign education policy researchers. Thus, the influence of private tutoring in China, or shadow education, has been explored by numerous academics and journalists over the years. To sum up over a decade of work[3], students who have hukou status in rural areas do not have the same access to good education that students in urban areas do. They are also, on average, poorer and cannot afford private tutoring to bolster their academic performance or migrate to urban areas with better schooling (Fu & Ren, 2010). As a result, many under-resourced students do not perform as well on the gaokao and cannot gain entry to elite universities (Yanbi & Minhui, 2010). This, in turn, has a direct impact on employment opportunities because of elitist guanxi [connections]: many companies hire well-educated and well-off “princelings” based on who they know and where they went to school, rather than by merit. While this might seem to indicate that anyone can get ahead if they know the right people, guanxi is easily bought and elite school networks are still inaccessible to the poor, rural students whose parents have no ability gain access themselves (Li, 2016).

The marketization of teaching itself is also a problem. Teachers and educators can earn additional salary by offering expensive after-hours tutoring sessions to students who can afford to pay—leading to a stream of corruption within ostensibly “egalitarian” school systems (Zhang 2014; Matsuoka 2018). The degradation of quality in state school systems is also cause for concern, when this directly affects less well-off students and their educational outcomes. After all, shadow tutoring confers the greatest benefits to those who can afford it, which creates a massive tension. Mainstream teachers receive good payment for private tutoring, and thus pay more attention and offer more resources to well-off students, while rural and poorer students need more attention but cannot afford the resources required to improve (Zhang, 2017). In addition, diminished funding to rural state schools drives teachers to wealthier urban centers (Fu & Ren, 2010), thus depriving poor students further and creating more barriers to accessing education and decent work.

Attention to the growth and expansion of education systems is being complemented and sometimes even replaced by a growing concern for the quality of the entire educational process and for the control of its results.

 –Jacques Hallak, UNESCO

But families who cannot afford to relocate to wealthier urban centers or gain access to quality private tutoring are locked out of this system. Shadow education, and the economics that influence enrollment in it, are in flagrant opposition to the intention of universal quality education, and have important impacts on social mobility in China (Zhang, Li, & Xue, 2015). It is in the interest of equitable, quality education and employment outcomes—and future economic growth—to break down the barriers that are rising, veritably unchecked, between the disadvantaged and higher education. This includes a reassessment of how rural schools are funded and whether or not the hukou system is more of a detriment to economic growth than a method of curbing massive migration to urban centers.

[1] UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals include Goal 4: Quality Education, Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Goal 10: Reduce Inequalities.

[2] A rural hukou prevents those who hold it from moving to urban centers and accessing the services provided there (and vice versa). For more information on the hukou system, Dr. Fei-Ling Wang of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs writes extensively on this topic. The Diplomat interviewed him in 2017.

[3] There are multiple decades of research contributing to this topic, but China is a more recent area of interest. Previous efforts have focused on Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in particular and have informed the basis of this piece.

References and Works Cited

Fu, Q., & Ren, Q. (2010). Educational Inequality under Chinas Rural–Urban Divide: The Hukou System and Return to Education. Environment and Planning A, 42(3), 592-610. doi:10.1068/a42101

Gao, H. (2014, September 10). China’s Education Gap. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from https://cn.nytimes.com/opinion/20140910/c10gao/en-us/

Knoll, J. H. (1992). UNESCO (Hg.): World Education Report 1991. Paris: UNESCO, 1991 (149 S.). Internationales Jahrbuch Der Erwachsenenbildung, 19-20(1). doi:10.7788/ijbe.1992.1920.1.229

Li, Ran, “Shadow Education in China: What is the relationship between private tutoring and students’ National College Entrance Examination (Gaokao) Performance?” (2016). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 15754. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/15754

Liqing Tao, Margaret Berci and Wayne He. (2006, March 23). Education as a Social Ladder. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/ref/college/coll-china-education-004.html

Matsuoka, R. (2018). Inequality in Shadow Education Participation in an Egalitarian Compulsory Education System. Comparative Education Review, 000-000. doi:10.1086/699831

Yanbi, H., & Minhui, Q. (2010). Educational and Social Stratification in China: Ethnicity, Class, and Gender. Chinese Education & Society, 43(5), 3-9. doi:10.2753/ced1061-1932430500

Zhang, D., Li, X., & Xue, J. (2015). Education Inequality between Rural and Urban Areas of the Peoples Republic of China, Migrants’ Children Education, and Some Implications. Asian Development Review,32(1), 196-224. doi:10.1162/adev_a_00042

Zhang, J. (2017, July 07). The lie of equal opportunity in a fast-growing China. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2101654/china-grows-equal-opportunity-and-social-mobility-are-fast

Zhang, W. (2014). The demand for shadow education in China: mainstream teachers and power relations. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 34(4), 436-454. doi:10.1080/02188791.2014.960798

Zhang, W., & Bray, M. (2016). Shadow Education. Spotlight on China, 85-99. doi:10.1007/978-94-6209-881-7_6

Zhang, W., & Bray, M. (2017). Equalising schooling, unequalising private supplementary tutoring: Access and tracking through shadow education in China. Oxford Review of Education, 44(2), 221-238. doi:10.1080/03054985.2017.1389710

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