CHINA: Massification has increased inequalities

The last decade witnessed China's dramatic move to mass higher education. In particular, 1999 saw an abrupt jump in new enrolments, with 1.59 million new students, up from 1.08 million the previous year, or an annual increase of 47.2%. The fast expansion continued until 2004, when higher education enrolment at all levels reached 20 million, double that of 1998.

After 2004, enrolments continued to rise but at a relatively slower pace. The number of regular higher education institutions also grew dramatically over the same period of time, from 1,022 in 1998 to 2,263 in 2008, an increase of 121.4%.

If the provision for students in non-formal and private institutions is factored into the statistics, China's tertiary student population reached nearly 30 million by the end of 2008, accounting for 24.2% of the 18 to 22 years age cohort, and making China's higher education system the world's largest in absolute numbers.

The participation rate was raised by 15% in 10 years, from around 9% in 1998. By contrast, it took the United States 30 years (1911 to 1941), Japan 23 years (1947 to 1970), and many European countries 25 years to make the same journey.

How this has been achieved is interesting. It has involved a clear vision for expanding higher education, action plans and decentralising and opening up higher education to the private sector since the government realised it did not have the capacity or ability to support a mass higher education system with the state purse.

Decentralisation in a true sense started in 1998, when a push came from the nationwide restructuring of government. Except for the Ministry of Education, central ministries were no longer permitted to run higher education institutions. Most formerly ministry-run institutions were transferred to local administration and had to find their own means of survival.

Another crucial policy change that propelled the massification has been the adoption of a fee-charging policy. From the 1950s up to the early 1990s, university admissions were tightly controlled with quotas set by the state, and students paid no fees and were assigned jobs on graduation. Officially from 1997, all higher education institutions started charging student fees. The fees level has been rising dramatically ever since.

Once tuition fees were charged to all students, the justification for the previous policy of setting enrolment quotas effectively disappeared. Instead, enrolment was driven by the social demand for education.

Other changes have revolved around funding which is now done using a formula-based approach comprised of two parts: a block appropriation based on enrolment and an appropriation for special items, with the former accounting for the largest share. The major allocation parameter is now the number of full-time equivalent students.

The state also created mechanisms that motivated institutions to expand, such as the 1999 Higher Education Law, which gives universities greater autonomy in several areas and makes them more able to respond to market needs.

They must also raise an increasing proportion of their operating funds from non-governmental and market sources. So, while enjoying unprecedented expansion, Chinese higher education's share of public education expenditure has actually been going down - from 24.2% in 2000 to 20.8% in 2006.

And now that it has been released from its role as sole patron for higher education, the state can focus its attention and concentrate its resources on national universities, and in particular a small number of elite universities, in an effort to raise China's global competitiveness.

The most elite universities have also been protected from over-expansion so as to focus on achieving global excellence. Expansion mainly took place in the lower echelons, such as the newly created higher vocational colleges which now account for 52% of all higher education institutions and accommodate nearly 30% of enrolments.

Institutional stratification has characterised the massification of higher education in China. With this approach, China has been able to establish and maintain the world's largest higher education system and still nurture several dozen players at the global level.

This 'success' is, however, at the expense of equity in terms of institutions' operating conditions. There is a widening gap between institutions at difference tiers in the hierarchy and concomitant differences in students' learning experiences.

Put in another way, a majority of Chinese students now have to pay relatively more for educational opportunities and learning experiences of much lower quality.

Following the same rationale, the Chinese government recognised that public provision alone could never meet the exploding demand for higher education. The state thus deliberately crafted a policy encouraging non-state sectors to engage in education provision.

In addition, the Chinese educational authorities have encouraged public universities to run second-tier colleges since 1999. This trend was criticised by fully private institutions, which saw it as unfair competition.

Private institutions, most of which focus on vocational education, now constitute 28% of all higher education institutions in China, with an enrolment of four million students, representing 20% of the entire enrolment in the regular higher education sector. However, they face financial constraints since 80% of their revenue comes from tuition and fees.

Despite their merit in widening access to higher education private institutions serve, to a certain extent, to enhance the inequity problems facing Chinese higher education in the expansion process, given that they charge much higher tuition rates but offer educational programmes of much lower quality.

In sum, China's move to mass higher education has resulted not only in rapid expansion of enrolment size but also systemic differentiation.

In this, it follows a model which is different from many of its international counterparts but bears most in common with the East Asian model of massification, which includes a strong sense of 'state instrumentalism', a focus on elite universities, increased tuition fees borne by families and rapid growth in higher education participation, which occurs mostly at lower reaches of the system.

As an emerging economy in the region and the world, China has been obsessed with a kind of 'catch up' mentality, which in turn pushes for the 'state instrumentalism' embedded in the East Asia or Confucian model.

In a certain sense, this 'state instrumentalism' leans towards neo-liberalism, despite its emphasis on central control. It shows some merit in terms of efficiency with respect to meeting the challenges of global competitiveness and an increasing social demand simultaneously. This is clearly evident in China's extraordinarily fast move to mass higher education and in its accelerated research performance.

Perhaps two things may better exemplify how China has pushed the boundaries of the East Asian model.

One is the Chinese government's practice of labelling major initiatives aiming to achieve research excellence as this or that 'project'. The overarching rationale behind such practices is that knowledge production can be managed by the state, which functions like a corporation in this context, and sets out goals and conditions for higher performance and efficiency.

The other is the introduction of independent colleges to the system. This policy initiative is seemingly aimed at tapping private resources into public institutions and so increasing higher education supply in a more efficient way. But it is often implemented as an investment strategy by the public patron university.

Operated as a private institution, the independent college often takes advantage of its patron university's reputation and prestige to attract students while charging them tuition fees at a rate two or three times higher than those regulated by the state for the public university.

Thus, China's success in the move to mass higher education should not be taken at face value.

Indeed, the Chinese approach has started to show its inner constraints, in particular the downsides for social equity in participation and consequently in the students' lifetime opportunities. There is also a potential for state interference into knowledge production and academic freedom.

Research confirms that students from upper socio-economic status (SES) families tend to be favoured for access to more selective universities.

One survey of 14,500 students from different SES backgrounds at 50 institutions across 10 provinces found that those from governmental officials' families were 18 times as likely as those with unemployed parents to gain access to national elite universities.

The only place that showed no significant difference in accessibility among all socio-economic groups was the newly emergent higher vocational colleges, which cluster at bottom of the hierarchy. This is where those from low-SES families would most likely be concentrated.

Even worse, those high achievers who, on average, take advantage of their high-SES family background, would continue to be favoured in terms of financial support after entering the selective universities. In general, students in more selective universities receive three times as much financial aid as their peers in less selective universities and higher vocational colleges.

Given the enormous difference in study experiences, resulting from the huge gap in terms of faculty qualifications, research facilities and per student expenditure (widened by two-fold between 1998 and 2006) between selective and less selective intuitions, students in lower echelon institutions will suffer from very limited chances for mobility within the system and later in the society at large.

In other words, this social inequity may accompany them throughout their lifetime.

* Qiang Zha is in the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto, Canada. This is an edited version of the article "China's Move to Mass Higher Education in a Comparative Perspective" in Compare, Vol. X, No. X, XXXX 2011, XXX-XXX.