State intervention is not enough to achieve equity

China is a country marked by sharp differences in regional development and by social inequalities, especially between rural and urban areas. This is echoed in access to higher education opportunities.

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As we have noted elsewhere, the reform of Chinese higher education since 1998 has brought profound changes and challenging issues from the perspective of social justice.

Instead of a state monopoly on investment and on the direction of graduates to employment, a co-funding system has been established by which all students – or their parents – share the cost of tertiary education and have the personal responsibility of finding a job in an open labour market.

These market-oriented reforms have resulted in an expansion of the higher education sector from one million new student enrolments each year to seven million by 2015.

This has had two consequences. First, there is an increase in the number of students from rural areas going to university, both absolutely (total number of students) and relatively (the ratio between rural and urban students).

Second, those from poor families, whether rural or urban, find that tuition fees and living costs are significant economic burdens, given their income and when compared with the state-funded education of the past.

Furthermore, the adjustment of higher education management responsibilities between central and provincial governments has aggravated the unevenness of the allocation of higher education resources by region, leading to intensified competitiveness among students for access to the elite universities funded by the central government.

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.

Support for rural students

The Chinese government has adopted several strategies to meet these challenges. First, a financial support system was established in 2007 to help the rural poor enter and complete studies at universities.

According to a survey conducted in Shaanxi province, two-thirds of students from rural China are now eligible for various types of 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. This aims to improve both physical facilities (infrastructure) and software facilities (talent and training opportunities).

Through this national programme 14 universities have been added to the list of national key universities. This ensures that there is at least one centrally government-funded university in each province of China.

More recently, special administrative measures have been adopted by the central government to improve the 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.

Uneven distribution of resources

What may we conclude about the continuing government efforts to achieve higher education equality?

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. It has been enhanced by its link to President Xi Jinping’s promise to fight rural poverty and social inequality.

Second, the impact of state intervention should not, however, be overestimated. This is because such policy adjustments have not touched the fundamental causes behind the uneven distribution of higher education resources in China. These are explained by the unevenness of economic development among regions and by the stratification and hierarchy among different types of higher education institutions: research-oriented, teaching-oriented and vocational.

If one takes into account global competition in higher education, which is of concern to the Chinese authorities, the efforts towards higher education equality in China may be in tension with another prominent national campaign, the campaign which aims to build 'world-class' universities.

Third, government intervention is a tactic rather than a strategy and one that aims at softening the negative impact of market-oriented reforms on Chinese higher education.

We suggest that what is needed is a rethinking of the fundamental relationship between higher education and social justice. Higher education reform should not be limited simply to the redistribution of higher education resources by region and by social group. It should also take into account the civil society mission of universities in terms of citizenship education, of community empowerment and of social justice.

We argue that, beyond a narrow focus on equal opportunity to enter key universities, what is also important is the social responsibility of universities and their members, staff and students, 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.

Dr Bin Wu is a senior research fellow in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, UK. E-mail: Professor W John Morgan is emeritus professor of comparative education, and senior fellow, the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and honorary professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, UK. E-mail: