Higher education and social justice in China

Professor John Morgan recently presented his research on higher education and social justice in China at a WISERD lunchtime seminar. Professor Morgan has been collaborating with Dr Bin Wu, senior research fellow at Nottingham University Business School on this topic.

China is a country marked by sharp differences in regional development and by social inequalities, especially between rural and urban areas. This is seen in access to higher education opportunities.  Chinese higher education reform since 1998 has replaced a state monopoly on investment and in the direction of graduates to employment by a system in which students – or their parents – share the cost of tertiary education and find a job in an open labour market. These market reforms saw higher education  expand from one million new students each year to seven million by 2015.

This has had consequences. First, an increase in students from rural areas going to university, both absolutely and relatively. Secondly, those from poor families, whether rural or urban, find that tuition fees and living costs are significant economic burdens, given their income and compared with the state-funded education of the past. This has raised a barrier to rural students wishing to attend first-tier (or national key) universities (currently 112 out of 2,553 higher education institutions). For example, the proportion of rural students at Peking University dropped from 38.9% in 1985 to 18.5% in 2014.

The Chinese government has adopted strategies to meet these challenges. A survey in Shaanxi province showed that two-thirds of rural students are now eligible for support, such as scholarships, needs-based subsidies and loans. This is double that of their counterparts from urban families. The central government has also provided additional funding to support local universities in middle and western China over the period 2012-20.  More recently, special administrative measures have been adopted to improve access of students from poor areas to first-tier universities. The Ministry of Education has asked such universities to recruit students more actively from 834 rural counties in which local schools are dominated by students from poor families; while the enrolment quotas for such students have increased from 10,000 in 2012, to 50,000 in 2015 and to 60,000 in 2016.

What may we conclude? First, state intervention, including administrative and financial measures, has been quite effective in supporting students from poor regions and vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities, in entering first-tier universities. Secondly, the impact of state intervention should not be overestimated. This is because policy has not touched the fundamental causes behind the uneven distribution of higher education resources in China. These are unevenness of economic development among regions and stratification of higher education institutions: research-oriented, teaching-oriented and vocational. Efforts towards higher education equality in China may be in tension with the campaign which aims to build ‘world-class’ universities.

We suggest rethinking the fundamental relationship between higher education and social justice. Higher education reform should consider the civil society mission of universities in terms of citizenship education, of community empowerment and social justice. Universities have a responsibility for improving the general welfare of the Chinese people in a fair society. The need for this is absent from debates about higher education reform in China.

Professor W. John Morgan is Emeritus Professor, School of Education, and Senior Fellow, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham; and Honorary Professor, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, where he is based at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data. He is the editor (with F. Li and Q. Gu) of a Handbook of Education in China to be published by Edward Elgar Publishing in 2017.

Dr. Bin Wu is senior research fellow at Nottingham University Business School His recent publications include Chinese Higher Education Reform and Social Justice (Routledge 2016, edited with W. J. Morgan)