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The Gaokao Gap

Inequality in China's education system

09·05·2014

The Gaokao Gap

Inequality in China's education system

09·05·2014

Top universities in the West, generally speaking, have something of a problem with class or income based inequality in their student bodies. In England, for example, last year, about a third of the Cambridge intake consisted of those in the fairly small minority of British children who were educated privately. It’s no longer kind of era when conversations are inevitably conducted in boarding-school drawl, but those who went to independent schools, whose students overwhelmingly come from middle-class families and up, still have a sizeable advantage to say the least.

What about in China, this bastion of Communism, where once workers, peasants and soldiers were placed in control of school management, including the admissions process and were even invited on occasion to teach? Well, that was decades ago, and now China too has its fair share of inequality.

You may be aware that at the moment there are two archetypes of privilege that are particularly vilified in Chinese society, the 富二代 and 官二代, the sons and daughters of China’s moneyed and political elite respectively. Although these ideas are hateful as stereotypes invariably are, there can be no denying that social inequality is a very real problem in China, and education is no exception to that.

Now as I suspect is the case in many countries with this problem, the main problem issue does not lie in purely class or income based things such as accent or how well heeled you are. Whereas these might play something of a role in those Western universities which still utilize interviews in the admissions process, Chinese universities dispense with all that. Nor do they care much about extracurricular interests, or indeed anything that isn’t the test score achieved in the gaokao University Entrance examination. For this reason, the gaokao is sometimes touted as a “great leveler” in Chinese society. The main problem therefore may lie in what chance the prospects students have of doing well in the gaokao, and therefore in provision of education, specifically where it is provided and how good it is.

Contrary to what you might think, China does have a private school system. It sounds ridiculous, but there it is. Private schools were said to have made up 10 percent of the market in secondary education at the beginning of 2014, and across the board, from primary to tertiary education, it has been growing for a long time. Now admittedly, private schooling may not be as much of an institution it is in the UK and the US, and it’s difficult to say whether the standard of education provided at Chinese private schools is much better than their public counterparts (as is generally the case in Western countries). However, the sector would hardly be burgeoning on empty promises, so it’s a safe bet that generally, those at private schools have some kind of edge on their state-educated counterparts.

Then there is also a hidden divide between rural and urban education that is as as significant as the wide gap in terms of material and personnel between Britain’s state and private school; the gap between, say, a top Beijing or Shanghai secondary and its counterpart in a rural Chinese village yawns much, much greater, though both belong to the state sector. As a recent op-ed in the New York Times put it, “While China has phenomenally expanded basic education for its people, quadrupling its output of college graduates in the past decade, it has also created a system that discriminates against its less wealthy and poorly connected citizens, thwarting social mobility at every step with bureaucratic and financial barriers.”

This disparity between the urban and rural, encompassing not just education but also crucially income has also resulted in a great rural-urban flow of “migrant workers”. This group, thanks to the hukou system which in effect binds people to their place of origin, means not only that the workers themselves are prevented from utilizing national insurance in the cities where they go to work, but also that their children are prevented from attending state schools in the cities where they work. Their only choice for educating their children in this instance is to either send their children back home, where as mentioned, the standard of schooling may not be high, or else pay for a “migrant school” in the city, institutions that are private and which are therefore not subject to hukou strictures.  You’d never find these children spending an afternoon out on the cricket square, however. This must be one of the few instances of private education where what is provided can and overwhelmingly is worse than that provided by the state.

And so when it finally comes to the gaokao, there is a very definite disparity, firstly between the public and the private, and then within the public sector itself between schools of vastly different standards. This is all without mentioning, of course, the various shady payments made to teachers and administrators.

But don’t let this give you an overly unfavorable impression of the Chinese system; inequality in education is rampant pretty much all over the world, and so perhaps really, it isn’t that much worse than everywhere else. Except Scandinavia, of course. Those Finns know how to do things right.

 

Master Image courtesy of Flickr User: Alberto G.

Used and edited under a Creative Commons licence