View from the Wall

Higher Education in China Today

The Scene and the Backdrop


Over the past thirty years, China has been remarkable. Among all kinds of world-leading achievements, an even more remarkable one was made in higher education: from 1999 to 2005, the total college intake increased fivefold. Twenty-four, instead of eight, out of 100 high school graduates can now go to college. In places like Beijing and Shanghai, almost every high school graduate has access to higher education.

Happenings on the leading college campuses heralded social changes in China. More than thirty years ago, college entrance examinations in China were suspended during the Cultural Revolution. Enrollment was based on the recommendation of an authority depending on the applicant's family background instead of academic competence. When the Cultural Revolution ended, the reinstatement of college entrance examinations in 1977 restored, at least partially, fair access to social mobility. Millions of talented young people, many of whom were from the impoverished countryside, now had a chance to move into the big cities with guaranteed expectations of making a most decent type of living, permanentlyand of paying visits back home as heroes.

The scenario above was true for college graduates all through the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, but not any more since mid-1990s when there were more and more layoffs from the lackluster, state-owned sector. In 1999, the government readily took advice from an economist, who was among the first batch of college grads since 1977 to use college education to cushion the impact of unemployment. Then China saw the boom of college intake mentioned above and the delay of the tide of job-seekers, which came eventually in 2003 upon graduation of the first group of college boomers. The year 2010 will witness the largest population of higher educated job-seekers, accumulated over the years.

The boom since 1999 was not only in the size of the student body but also in what each student had to pay for college tuition. Higher education, once the life-changing path to a decent urban living, now became much less affordable for the poor families in the countryside. More was spent, yet the return was uncertain because of the over-supply of fresh grads. When everyone has a college degree, the rush for graduate programs and higher degrees is inevitable. Leading state-owned companies can now hire PhDs for the same posts taken by degree holders ten years ago. The level of starting salaries is not increasing in proportion to the higher tuition and income expectations. Meanwhile, the standard of living in places like Beijing and Shanghai is skyrocketing, which means longer years for fresh college grads, or even PhDs to earn back what they have spent during the long years of schooling.

When college seems to be a money game, more and more students become economically wiser than their former alumni. They are interested less in the pursuit of knowledge itself and more in how to pass the exam and get a degree with minimal effort. After all, their purpose of attending college is to meet the basic requirements for job openings. When the expected return remains low across the board, why bother to invest more time and brain cells? Colleges are degree providers now. When students and their families pay more, they feel more justified in demanding what they have paid for. The government would like to see no new grads without jobs. These pressures pose a moral hazard for the schools to secure a degree for almost everyone, including the less motivated and the undeserved. The boom of college students eventually creates bubbles in terms of academic capacity and integrity.

For most parents in the cities considering their child's future, to get a better job is to attend a better college. Without the "brand name" of a better college, the job future of the child will be limited. The road to a better college is through better kindergartens, elementary and middle schools, all leading to better college entrance exam results. Following this strategy, a chain of events will start right before pregnancy. Because of the restrictive policy of location-based intake, young couples will consider moving into a street district with better schools, though the moving may cost more than what they can afford. For those who cannot move, there is a leeway called "school choosing fee," a minimum of 30,000 RMB or much more, which is paid by parents for their child to be enrolled in the "dream" school located in an area different than where they live. Even this payment cannot guarantee entrance to the desired school when more people are willing and able to pay. Then the schools invent other evaluation criteria besides academic performances: kids have to prepare their curriculum vitae (CVs), and must demonstrate their extra-curricular talents during interviews. The CVs include every detail of their school achievements and are lengthier than those of job applicants. Talents in the arts or sports need to be developed from early childhood on via weekend programs of various training centers leaving little time for the children to rest or enjoy their families.

All these spectacular scenes must be viewed against the same backdrop with the following features.

First, the government plays an absolutely dominant role over educational policies, administration and resource allocations. Over ninety percent of the schools are owned and controlled by the government. Private schools are either foreign-owned, inaccessible to local residents, or simply training centers for the arts, sports or English, all serving the same purpose of making students more adaptable to the government-driven system. Application to private universities is through the "High Exam," the same national college entrance exam reinstated by the government in 1977. The application procedure gives priority to top public universities to choose those with the best talents. Private universities can only take the "leftover" students. In terms of daily operations, public school principals and college presidents are all appointed by the government. The allocation of funds is decided by the government, and the use of funds has to be approved by the government. The salary schemes for faculty are the same as those for government units, with various allowances, subsidies, performance bonuses and so on. This is always complicated. The universities behave more and more like government units, imitating bureaucracy of every kind and performing cosmetic jobs to satisfy the appetites of higher authorities. Policies and administrative procedures are top-down with minimal feedback, making even young students cynical and unbelieving of change.

Second, location-based segregation remains the distinctive feature of the system. Limited by the residential status (hukou), children of migrant workers have to go back to their hometown to take the college entrance examination, the "High Exam." In order to lock up talents locally, the nationally held exam is given on the same date everywhere and is allowed to have several regional versions. Then, migrant children educated in Beijing and tested in Henan Province have little chance of getting good results because they were preparing for a different set of papers. Or, they may choose to go back to their hometown earlier, which means separation from their parents and their good records in Beijing being wasted due to different textbooks and different methods (if not quality) of teaching.

Location-based middle school intake makes it legal and justifiable for model schools or better ones to collect a "school choosing fee" from students living in street districts other than that of the school. Consequently, these model schools enjoy a good reputation as well as the income from the "school choosing fee," and therefore can officially ask parents: "What do you have to contribute to our school (for the benefit of your kid)?" Their kids, in return, are getting used to comparing whose father is more powerful.

Third, the notion of higher education is still an elitist one. College grads are the pride of their family, their neighborhood and their village. They expect themselves to be better positioned and better paid. This makes the jobless graduation even more painful. Even before the boom of college intake in 1999, people began to describe the "High Exam" as "millions going over a single-log bridge." They believed those who survived could really prosper. Now, the bridge is much wider for undergraduate programs. Officially it is called the "popularization of higher education." Graduate programs then become the new "single-log bridge." Behind all this is the idea that education is a struggle for privilege, and everyone is not created equal. Social Darwinism? The end justifies the means? You name it.

The reinstatement of the college entrance examination in 1977 was aligned with the restoration of social order after the Cultural Revolution. The boom in college intake in 1999 was intended to mitigate the unemployment impact of the time. The former event heralded the reform and opening-up policy of the next thirty years, while the latter was driven by economic rationale and monetary motivesthe Zeitgeist of contemporary Chinese. The spectacular scenes in the development of higher education in China are against the backdrop of an authoritarian and elitist mentality. It takes time for people in China to enrich their understanding of higher education and for young students to realize the true business of a college education.

Image credit: _ZXW9680 by Zixi Wu, on Flickr

Jonathan Li

Jonathan Li is a university professor in Beijing. View Full Bio