Education as Public Policy in China

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W. John Morgan explains how policy has impacted higher education in China.

China is a country marked by sharp differences in regional development and by social inequalities, especially between rural and urban areas. Given the economic and social development strategy of the Chinese Communist Party, education will continue to be a fundamental aspect of public policy aimed at managing this. The access to higher education opportunities is an excellent example of the process. Since 1998, Chinese higher education reform 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 deprived 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 reasons behind the unequal distribution of higher education resources in China. These are unevenness of economic development among regions and a consequent stratification of higher education institutions: as research-oriented, teaching-oriented and vocational. Efforts towards higher education equality in China may be in tension with the official campaign of Party and State which aims to build ‘world-class’ universities.

Chinese higher education reform, and indeed the development of education generally, has human capital and social capital implications for the country. There are also political implications as a Chinese system of public policy formation and implementation evolves. For example, a rethinking of the fundamental relationship between higher education and social justice is suggested. Higher education reform should consider the civil society mission of universities in terms of citizenship education, of community empowerment and social justice. It should be recognized that 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. The same may be said for public attitudes towards educational provision more generally, although considerable progress has been made throughout the system in recent years. The Chinese Communist Party understands that the development of an economically rewarded and cohesive population is necessary to the maintenance of its political hegemony, given growing social inequalities. The provision of, access to, and control of the content of public education is a key to this. As concluded elsewhere, the lesson for policy-makers in education, as in other aspects of policy, is to take public preferences more readily into account, in the interests of social harmony.

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; and Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow, at the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data. In collaboration with Chinese colleagues he has published several articles and book chapters on education in China, especially on the graduate labour market. He has also edited (with B. Wu) two books on Higher Education Reform in China: Beyond the Expansion (2011) and on Chinese Higher Education Reform and Social Justice (2016). He contributed (with F. Li) the chapter on ‘Education: from egalitarian ideology to public policy’ to the Handbook of the Politics of China (Ed.) D.S.G. Goodman, Edward Elgar Publishing, (2015), 217-237. Professor Morgan’s latest book is a Handbook of Education in China (Ed., with Q. Gu and F. Li) to be published in the same series of Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China, Edward Elgar Publishing, August 2017.

Morgan Hbk EducationHandbook of Education in China is available now.



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