Higher education widens the gap between rich and poor

The Chinese government has actively increased higher education opportunities because of its strong commitment to transforming the country and preparing its people to cope with the growing challenges of the globalising market.

Since its policy of higher education expansion implemented in 1999, higher education enrolment in China has surged from around one million in 1998 to around seven million in 2014 – an approximately seven times increase in enrolment in the space of less than two decades.

Transforming the higher education system in China from an elite to a mass system has increased access to junior colleges and universities and produced around seven million college graduates a year in the last few years who are looking for jobs in the labour market. Graduate unemployment, a skills mismatch and unmet expectations are causing growing social concerns in the country.

Massifying higher education and intensifying inequality

To critically examine the impact of the massification of higher education on admissions and subsequently on graduate employment and social mobility in contemporary China, our study draws on national social survey data and youth survey data in Guangzhou city as well as social statistics from the annual China Labour Statistical Yearbook between 1996 and 2012, with detailed information on the changes in labour market conditions, including employment and unemployment figures for adults and college graduates.

We find that college graduates have been confronting great challenges in the labour market as a result of massification of access and rising numbers of qualified young people. The number of unemployed college graduates is increasing.

In addition, research findings suggest that family background and social capital are not only perceived as crucial determinants of the future career development of university students, but also play important roles in their employment and social mobility.

Most importantly, the significance of family background and social resources have not decreased as a result of massification of higher education. Instead, more families tend to mobilise their social capital to help their offspring to secure job positions.

The findings of the present study challenge the conventional wisdom that, other things being equal, raising participation in higher education will bring young people greater advantages in the labour market, higher earnings and more opportunities for upward mobility.

Providing the output of graduates outpaces the demand for graduate skills – which appears to be the case not only in China but also worldwide – supply and demand pressures reduce the pay premium for degrees and lower equality in the labour market.

What makes the situation even worse is when higher education has been affected by the strong tide of privatisation and marketisation, where individuals and families have to take on significant financial responsibility to go to university.

Similarly, a 2016 study conducted by Ka Ho Mok, Zhuoyi Wen and Roger Dale, entitled Employability and Mobility in Valorisation of Higher Education Qualifications: The experiences and reflections of Chinese students and graduates, which critically examines the mismatch between the supply of college graduates and changing labour markets in Mainland China and Taiwan, also reveals a widening income gap and differential treatment between junior college and university graduates.

Worse still, graduates from highly ranked universities and relatively lowly ranked ones encounter different pathways upon graduation, resulting in the emergence of ‘ant tribes’ – college or university graduates who pay heavily for higher education but end up unemployed or having jobs with unfavourable terms and which do not offer a return on the investment they have made in their education.

For this reason, understanding how academic credentials are valued is central to any understanding of how education might lead to greater social justice.

As Professor Hugh Lauder rightly points out in his 2014 speech "Jobs or skills? The role of education in the 21st century": “Education has been fundamentally re-positioned in the 21st century. The polarisation of wealth and the creation of global markets in secondary and higher education has meant that we are beginning to see a fundamental rupture in education which is challenging the aspirations we had for it in the 20th century, both in terms of its relationship to the economy and to social mobility.”

He argues that “the relationship of education to the economy, the cornerstone of educational policy, is fundamentally problematic: economies cannot provide the skills or jobs that are central to the education promise.

"The idea of upward mobility has been dealt a blow because a global gulf is emerging between education for the wealthy and the rest. At the same time politicians seek to herd families into an intense positional competition for which there are increasingly fewer ‘winners’."

As a result, the cost of not going to college continues to rise and, without higher education qualifications, young people find themselves excluded from the global employability auction.

The need for structural change

In a highly unequal world, in particular one in which the globalised economy has transformed the global labour market because it now has access to a high-skilled and well-educated labour force, willing to work for relatively cheaper wages, contemporary society is facing a crisis in its education governance framework.

Confronted with education governance frameworks that structurally and strategically promote particular interests and so favour unequal social opportunities and outcomes, many students from relatively lower socio-economic backgrounds have found the conventional distributive framework to be problematic; as such, a dominant distributive paradigm “defines social justice as the morally proper distribution of social benefits and burdens among society’s members”, as Political Science Professor Iris Young said in her book Justice and the Politics of Difference.

Educated youth in highly competitive global cities must compete for urban resources, for example, for elite education. Hence, when analysing the relationship between education and social mobility, we cannot rest upon the conventional notion that education promotes social equality and social justice because gentrification in most global cities surely raises the issue of class and class inequalities.

Our study offers strong empirical evidence to challenge this conventional wisdom, especially when education has failed to serve any kind of distributive function.

Therefore, to understand how university students and graduates perceive employability and social mobility, we need to look at the value placed on academic credentials and how they are distributed and the way the ‘graduate labour market’ is skewed in favour of those who come from a socially advantaged family and who have greater social capital.

We need to build a new education governance to promote educational equality because the existing education governance frameworks only serve to widen the gap between the advantaged and the rest.

In order to progress from the existing unequal social order, we need to create new modes of accountability and spaces for representation within and beyond the national state to protect those in less advantaged positions or those who are being socially and economically exploited.

Ka Ho Mok is chair professor of comparative policy and Dr Jin Jiang is based in the department of sociology and social policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. This article is based on their recent Centre for Global Higher Education working paper, Massification of Higher Education: Challenges for admissions and graduate employment in China .