Supporting Article

The Challenge of Inequality in Chinese Education

There are a number of environmental inequalities which have as great or greater relevance to the challenges in China in the field of education than those that are historically and culturally rooted.

Geographically Driven Inequality

The stressors and challenges faced by students are, in part, due to the competitive nature of the Chinese education system. China is a nation very goal-driven when it concerns education and the results are visible. According to a study by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (hereafter referred to as the OECD), Teenagers from the Chinese city of Shanghai have the best education in the world, according to a major international study of standards in math, science and literacy released last week. The Pisa report, released every three years, studied 470,000 15-year-old pupils in 65 countries around the more developed parts of the world.[1]

In contrast to the stellar evaluation of students in Shanghai, the rural regions are subpar from the start as they have much lower attendance rates, often due to the labor intensive lifestyle in agricultural regions. The children are often called upon to help with the farm or skilled labor and school becomes a secondary priority to livelihood. Even if a family makes the choice of putting the child’s education as the first priority, when the child goes to school the lack of resources, poorly trained teachers and poor facilities, make the standard of education in rural schools vastly different to those in urban schools.

As further evidence of the disparity, a study by the Rural Education Action Project (hereafter REAP), an affiliate of Stanford University, shows that only 2% of students from poor rural areas go to college. Only 8% of junior high graduates go on to high school. Many students who complete their 8th grade education then leave the farm to head to the city for better work and higher wages. But the dilemma still remainswith only an eighth grade education their chances of finding a better job are slim.[2]

Economically Driven Inequality

The OECD report continued with the following synopsis by Andrew Baston in the Wall Street Journal on February 3, 2010:

The increase in inequality in China has leveled off in recent years and could be less severe than previously thought, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says, suggesting that Beijing is starting to make progress in tackling one of its biggest social problems.

The OECD, in its economic survey of China, said more welfare spending in rural areas and increased migration to cities helped arrest a widening of the income gap. The Paris-based organization urged China to lower what is still a fairly high level of inequality by further boosting social programs and eliminating discrimination against rural residents.[3]

The REAP study, on the other hand, presented some quantitative analysis that highlights the disparity of income in China and relationship of that to education:

Urban incomes are more than three times rural incomes

Rural western provinces are falling behind urbanizing coastal provinces

More than seventy percent of students from China’s major cities go to college

Less than five percent of students from poor rural areas go to college.[4]

The chart below, also provided by REAP, shows income and enrollment comparisons between urban and rural regions.[5]

So what do these vast differences mean when it comes to the education of Chinese youth? The economic disparities among the Chinese people and the regions of the country itself add to the educational imbalance.

Still, many students are beginning to question whether a high school degree is worth the effort. Chinese children don’t aspire just to high school diplomas; high school is considered preparation for the extremely competitive college entrance examination. If a university degree isn’t in the picture, high school usually isn’t, either.[6]

Education through middle school has been compulsory and free in China since 2007, but it’s upon leaving middle school that the problems start for poor and disadvantaged students. Families then must foot the bill themselves, and poorer students are faced with the reality that high school may not be a viable option. There are several factors for these youngsters to consider: Will they have to join the work force right out of middle school to support themselves and their families? Will the law require them to return to their parents’ hometowns for an education? Could a trade school offer an education comparable with China’s highly competitive high schools?[7]

Educational success or stagnation in China can hinge on one issue, tuition. High school tuition costs about $450 per year, a big chunk of a paycheck for a minimum-wage worker in Shanghai, who earns $164 a month.[8]

Sometimes the government can provide aid, but there is no guarantee. Some students in Shanghai have secured sponsorship and, in turn, a high school education, through Shanghai Sunrise, a charity that helps poor students. Shanghai Sunrise exists to provide financial support to underprivileged students in Shanghai for their educational, professional and life experiences, to motivate them to reach their full potential, and inspire them to give back to their community. Concurrently Shanghai Sunrise assists corporations in fulfilling their corporate social responsibilities and for individuals to contribute to their society.[9]

But the kind of assistance provided in Shanghai is not available in all parts of China. In fact, Shanghai leads the nation in the accessibility of education for all, and while still not ideal is better than most cities for urban migrants as well.

Hukou Driven Inequality

The chart below,[10] published by REAP, illustrates the shift in China in the rural and urban populations in just the 10 years from 1996 to 2006. The number of elementary students in urban dropped slightly, while in rural schools the number dropped by nearly 30 million students.

China is taking steps toward balancing the inequalities for the vast population of rural residents who migrate to cities for work, and the many who take their children with them. The 12th Five Year Plan is making attempts to restructure the household registration system, also known as the hukou system. Among other restrictions, this system often prevents children of urban migrants from receiving educational services in the urban setting because their household registration is from a different region of China. The restructuring of this system would be a giant step in the direction of helping these often overlooked students.[11]

The policies and procedures vary considerably from city to city when it comes to the education of urban migrant children and can be quite complicated. For example, a child with a rural hukou in Shanghai can attend a public school, but only after they have secured seven different certificates, which include proof of employment, a registered work unit and also proof that the child was born within China’s family planning policy.[12]

Some migrants pay a significant amount of money, the amount varies from city to city, in order to secure a hukou for that city, but this only happens with serious networking, recommendations and favors which will open doors for their child’s education. This is successfully accomplished by a very small percentage of migrant families.

The vast majority of urban migrant families are left with two choices: either pay large tuition sums to a school willing to enroll their child, or send their child back to the rural province for education. There are several dilemmas that accompany these choices, the first of which is that often, schools simply will not enroll a migrant child. The second problem is that tuition is so out of reach that migrant families cannot possibly afford the tuition, let alone the resident fees which are tacked on to the bills. If there is more than one child in the family, the situation is complicated even more.

Another option is for parents to leave their children back in the rural province to be raised by grandparents or other relatives, or send the children back home when it comes time for schooling. The result is a generation of children detached from their parents, both physically and emotionally, being raised by relatives or even strangers. It also subjects these children to a less-than-quality education in the poorer rural provinces, where there is little hope of going to middle or high school because the resources for further education either do not exist or are extremely minimal.

The scale of the challenge is immense and illustrated by the chart below.[13] When you are viewing the statistics keep in mind that these are not national figures, but figures for just one city, Beijing.

Access Driven Inequality

Yet another concern is the number of young children who are sent to boarding schools due to lack of educational opportunity in their remote region. The presentation produced by REAP at the following link illustrates just how rustic and ill-equipped these schools are. It also highlights the young age of the children who attend these schools. View the following clip for a firsthand look at a rural boarding school for children as young as six.

Or go to this page of REAP’s website then click on “The Good, The Bad The Ugly” to view the slide show.[14]

Inequality at the Starting Line

Yet another issue is that of pre-school education availability. China’s urban population is exploding and the two-parent working family is the norm. Referring again to the Little Emperor Syndrome, these families seek to give their only child the best resources and opportunities available to ensure success from the start. Most Westerners approach college entrance with a competitive mindset, but for the Chinese that competition starts at preschool. There is a huge demand for quality preschools, so much so that parents stand in line for days to receive entrance vouchers to the few public preschools that have openings. Other parents pay large sums for private preschools.

According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor,

It is almost impossible, according to parents and teachers, to find a reputable kindergarten in Beijing that charges less than 1,000 renminbi ($150) a month, which is a quarter of an average salary in the capital. Some charge five times that, putting intense strain on the budgets of even better-off young parents already burdened by heavy mortgages. By comparison, tuition and accommodation at Peking University, the country’s best, costs only about 700 renminbi ($102) a month, thanks to heavy government subsidies.

The high value placed on education in China trickles down to the family level and creates a pressure cooker of expectations and standards, even for young children. Hao Jianqiu, headmistress of Donghuamen Kindergarten near the Forbidden City, one of the most highly regarded in Beijing, says, “Parents are definitely paying more attention nowadays to preschool. Their children carry the whole family’s hopes on their shoulders; if their education is a failure, the family fails.”

The Beijing education authorities are struggling to meet the rising demand, without much success. They have increased class sizes this year to 40 children, up from 35, and added classrooms for another 12,000 places, according to the Education Department of the Beijing city government. There are plans to add a further 12,000 in the near future, officials say. But even that will leave a quarter of a million kindergarten-age children in Beijing more than half the total without places, according to a recent report by the Beijing Academy of Educational Science.

All this means that poorer Beijingers are forced to fall back on the traditional child-care solution in China relying on the grandparents since in most Chinese families both parents work. But Grandma is not good enough for many new parents in Beijing’s burgeoning middle class. They want their little darlings all single children under China’s one-child policy to get ahead from the word go.

“If other parents are sending their children to preschool and you don’t, your child won’t have any playmates,” he worries. “Parents don’t want their kids to lose right from the starting line: If just one family sends his kid to kindergarten, everybody will.”[15]

Excerpted from “Teacher Education in China: A Context Study,” The Kaifa Group Inc., March 2011. Used with permission

Image credit: middle school class by Rex Pe, on Flickr


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Brenda Reid

Brenda Reid is a researcher for The Kaifa Group, an educator and freelance writer. Her recent research and writing has focused on the areas of quality teacher training, educational excellence for all learners, youth and families. View Full Bio

Myron Youngman

Myron Youngman is the President and Founder of The Kaifa Group, Inc. which fosters development in the areas of education, culture, and commerce. His experience includes university lecturing on mainland Chinese culture, cultural anthropology, international business, and other related courses.View Full Bio