Formal education systems in China can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (16-1045 BCE), which formed a cultural cycle in which the educated were considered the ‘elite’ and received more opportunities to advance their careers and social status. Subsequently, this has resulted in a tradition for many Chinese parents to prioritise education given its historical and cultural significance.
In more recent years and prior to the contemporary education system, there have been many reform policies to improve curriculum frameworks, including requirements that all Chinese students complete nine years of compulsory education. Specifically, the Law on Compulsory Education was enacted in 1986 to ensure that all school-aged Chinese students obtain the right to receive mandatory education. After this law, further reforms also occurred in 1988, which involved more widespread textbook provision and emphasised three distinct management levels in education: the country, regional, and school levels. In most instances, provincial authorities administer higher education institutions and education remains state-run, with basic, higher, and adult education forming China’s three main educational categories. Besides the notable emphasis on maths and Chinese in China, the class sizes constitute notable differences between classrooms in China and countries such as Australia. The average number of students in high school exceeds averages in other OECD countries, reaching 50 students per class on average in 2019.
To a certain extent, there have been significant successes in China’s overall education system, which strives to achieve pure meritocracy. This is the case as the Chinese higher education system produces over 8 million university graduates each year, which is a major source of China’s economic and technological growth. Nonetheless, this meritocratic system creates immense pressure for students to compete with each other in environments as early as preschool. In some cases, parents enrol their children for preschool tutoring lessons. Parents who do not enrol their children in these programs through primary, middle, and high school or cannot afford to do so risk their children being left behind. Consequently, this gave rise to the private tutoring sector, which expanded to a $120 billion USD industry before recent regulations that will be explored later in this article.
Despite some improvement, wide inequalities in education access and attainment continue to present significant challenges for the Chinese education system. Uneven regional economic development has led to substantial inequality in the distribution of educational resources. In particular, as coastal cities continue to make strides in higher education, the western parts of the country struggle with relatively low literacy, high secondary school dropout rates, and severe funding shortages. While there is a dearth of official statistics, some studies have estimated that nearly a third of students in rural areas leave school prior to the completion of high school. This is coupled with a rapid increase in wages that has tempted young people in rural areas to drop out of secondary school.
However, education inequality in China is not limited to regional disparities. Even within urban areas, the increased importance of private connections and “selection fees” to enrol children in elite urban public schools reinforces social disparities. The marketization of education has also given rise to an education market with many fee-charging schools and colleges, as well as a prominent afterschool education sector. Although the integration of market principles to education has undoubtedly created new opportunities, it has intensified both the inland-coastal divide and educational inequality within major cities. Some argue that these changes risk China’s meritocratic education system transitioning to a largely private system where students’ attainment is instead influenced by wealth and private connections.
When exploring sources of inequities in Chinese education, it is important to note the role played by mindset and individual choices in rural contexts as well. For instance, many rural families perceive that good jobs would be impossible to secure even if one graduated from university, which discourages them from accepting the opportunity costs of their children’s education. Hence, studies have found that there are explicit or implicit messages in family conversations which “reminds the student that he/she is a parasite on the family finances nibbling away the little, hard-earned family money.”
Consequently, children from poorer families who theoretically need education the most, encounter the greatest economic and social barriers that prevent further education.
Ultimately, income inequality and educational inequality serve as mutually reinforcing factors, perpetuating a vicious cycle of their own.
The new tutoring regulations have had immediate ramifications for multiple facets of the Chinese private education sector. Not only are educational conglomerates and smaller tutoring companies targeted by the regulation, but so too are individual private tutors. With the Chinese state making use of stringent measures such as anti-mafia police to enforce the new regulations, tutoring in China has shifted to becoming a not-for-profit endeavour.
This move against for-profit education resulted in a massive financial collapse of the private education market. Entire companies lost more than 90% of their value, and thousands of employees were laid off. The entire education technology market is predicted to ultimately collapse by 76% in response to these regulations. For investors, both foreign and within China, the Chinese education sector has become nothing short of uninvestable.
The Chinese government has lamented the fact that the education industry had been ‘hijacked by capital’, pointing to the rising costs of educating children, hence necessitating regulation to return control of education to the government. This serves the ultimate goal of making the education system more affordable and accessible. However, other aspects of the new regulation also speak to emergent nationalism and a rejection of Western viewpoints and ideologies. An important feature of the new regulations was the banning of all foreign curricula, as well as the hiring of foreign teachers. Furthermore, the structure of the Chinese education system remains untouched, with the highly competitive school system Gaokao remaining intact.
While the new regulations may have sought to address educational inequality, the way they have been introduced and enforced, evidence the Chinese Communist Party’s state-capitalist model. The new regulations are a clear reminder that the decisions of the Chinese state supersede all foreign actors and even local investors, with profit being firmly subservient to state goals. This heavy state interventionism represents a different path for the Chinese economy in the next decade, one substantially different to Deng’s Open-Door Policy which embraced the capitalist elements that have undoubtedly shaped the Chinese economy of today.
The ‘Gaokao’ is the arduous nine-hour standardised Chinese university entrance exam, taken in the third or final year of high school over two to three days. Standard Chinese language and mathematics are included in every exam but students can choose to specialise in a foreign language, social sciences, or natural sciences.
According to the Chinese Society of Education, more than 75% of students aged 6 to 18 in China received after-class tutoring for the core components of the Gaokao. The likelihood of students receiving tutoring was 86.4% higher in affluent urban hukous than for rural hukou students. This disparity highlights the way in which the private tutoring industry is exacerbating the rural-urban divide in education outcomes.
The pervasiveness of private tutoring within the Chinese educational landscape can be understood through the statistically significant and positive effects on Grade 8 students’ scores on Chinese and mathematics tests, despite being modest in size. In such a competitive academic environment, even marginal improvements in Gaokao scores are desirable in order to ensure an offer to a prestigious university, which in turn fuels high-level demand. The same study also found that the effects of private tutoring vary for different groups, which has profound impacts on educational inequality. The effect is larger for students with better-educated and wealthier parents, leading to further entrenchment of existing inequality.
Dr Ye Liu, a King’s College London lecturer in international development, deconstructs the demand for private education as an “investment channel [for urban families], to reproduce the privileges of cultural capital”. This provides a context to the reception of the new regulation wherein almost 70% of the 2,400 respondents said they didn’t think the policy reform would reduce pressure on parents. Only 18% of respondents thought it would partly or entirely ease the pressure.
The private tutoring boom in China is emblematic of existing issues of educational inequality throughout different hukous in China, which is an ingrained systemic issue requiring comprehensive structural reform.
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My name is Ben Griffiths and I’m currently a 4th year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) and Diploma in Languages (French) student at the University of Melbourne. I’m passionate about policy, public health, climate change, international collaboration, and finding ways to combine these interests to make a tangible impact. In my spare time I like to play guitar, learn more about the world, hang out with friends, and write articles. You can find more of my current and previous writing at Cainz, ESSA Unimelb, Melbourne Microfinance Initiative, Strive Student Health Initiative, and LSE International Development Review.
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