Why China’s HE system has 'feet of clay'

I was interested to read the recent University World News article by Philip Altbach, "China's Glass Ceiling and Feet of Clay". By "feet of clay" he meant that "China has developed an unbalanced higher education system".

"The top universities have been generously funded and many can now compete with the best global institutions." On the other hand, the many smaller "institutions at the bottom of the system are underfunded and generally offer rather poor quality". The system is, so to speak, based on "feet of clay".

My 2015 doctoral dissertation, titled A Study of Rural Students in the Higher Education System in China in Relation to their Context, reveals the possible origins of these "feet of clay". This phenomenon is directly related to the state policy that initiated massification of higher education in 1999.

It is noteworthy that this policy was not initiated by the Ministry of Education or other institutions relevant to education. Rather, it was a decision directly made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. And a major objective of this policy was to counteract the Asian financial crisis and realise the state’s economic goals.

However, Chinese universities and colleges turned out to be vulnerable to this external intrusion. In response to state policy, the Chinese higher education system witnessed a drastic increase in student enrolments without sufficient consideration of quality, while tuition fees rose drastically.

It was as a result of this process that the Chinese higher education system developed its "feet of clay". My dissertation has revealed that factors contributing to this go beyond the field of higher education and may be traced back in history.

In brief, my dissertation highlights two main factors. The first is an urban-rural segregation system established in the 1950s and still existing today. It has reduced Chinese peasants, that is, the majority of the country's population, to the position of unfree labourers.

Tertiary education is one of the few ways in which rural youth can break the shackles of their unfree status. However, due to a very high degree of urban-rural inequality in pre-tertiary education, most rural students tend to be streamed into the bottom of the system.

Lack of autonomy

The second factor is China's higher education system, which was restructured by the state in the 1950s and has remained fundamentally unchanged up to the present day. This system is vulnerable to the intervention of external forces because it is not autonomous – it has a typical heteronomous structure, as defined by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in 1998.

The Constitution of China and Higher Education Act of China, government regulations and university constitutions guarantee that all institutions are under the top-down leadership of the committees of the Communist Party of China. A large number of party workers occupy full-time positions within the system and work to maintain Communist Party operations on campus rather than doing technical or administrative work that is relevant to teaching and research.

It is also difficult for teachers to form horizontal allegiances with each other or with their students – either within or across campus borders – and for peers to form vertical allegiances beyond their institutions. Without a mechanism which protects against heteronomy, the control function in the system can eliminate dissidents methodically and effectively.

In the long run, this structure impacts on the behaviour of the large population of university intellectuals, supporting the heteronomous structure. This in turn contributes to the fact that higher education fails to play its public role properly and, in turn, contributes to the formation of the "feet of clay".

Chinese peasants have an urgent need to escape their unfree and impoverished position. In an attempt to do so, they invest in their children's tertiary education so that their children at least may possess academic capital and not have to suffer the same fate working as cheap labourers.

But higher education has become so expensive that many rural families have been brought to the brink of bankruptcy in their pursuit of it. This fact notwithstanding, many peasants continue to support their children so they can attend tertiary education.

Anti-rural discrimination

The field of higher education, however, is defined by the above-mentioned urban-rural segregation. Funding allocation policies and admission policies tend to discriminate against rural students.

Peasants are seduced to convert their limited economic capital into academic capital while their children may find it difficult to reconvert their academic capital into economic capital. That translates into nearly 15 million rural college graduates having difficulty finding formal employment and having to work temporarily as cheap labourers.

In conclusion, the unbalanced higher education system in China is largely defined by existing state laws and policies as well as government regulations that reinforce the unbalanced power relations in the macro context. This pattern was established through a series of government measures that restructured society and the university and put the state in a dominant position.

Only when society and the universities have mustered sufficient forces to subvert the existing pattern of power relations and break the state monopoly will it be possible to bring the Chinese higher education system into balance and remove the "feet of clay" in the system.

Jingyi Dong is a researcher at the department of education, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway. The book version of her dissertation will be published in 2016 by Dignity Press.