Higher Education Inequity and Inequality A Focus on China’s University Education

Higher Education Inequity and Inequality: A Focus on China’s University Education

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Just like other nations around the world, China’s higher education system witnessed substantial expansion for the better part of the twentieth century, with particularly significant growth occurring since the 2000s. A development in the total number of education possibilities is associated with a rise in the availability of higher education. With regards to the existing studies in China, it is believed that tertiary education growth will result in a more relatively equal provision of educational chances. However, there is inconclusive evidence on the influence of tertiary education growth on educational opportunity equality. This implies that there is still higher learning disparity in the country despite the fact there is increased educational opportunities. Improvements in the number of educational options are linked with the growth and development of higher learning. It has been incredibly difficult to keep up with the rate of growth in tertiary education in China (Wu, Yan, & Zhang, 2020). Hence, the Chinese public assumes that individuals from underprivileged backgrounds can now take full advantage of this explosive growth and have a better chance of gaining admission to institutions of higher learning, which helps to ensure that access to education are distributed equally.

Regardless of the fact that some studies have been carried out to assess the consequences of disproportionate education opportunities notwithstanding growth, there has been no conclusion reached. A further limitation is that just a few studies have taken into account the overall quality of programs in universities. The conclusions gathered from past research, which did not take into account the disparities in quality within the university system, only highlighted changes at a “quantity” level between before and after the development of the system. As such the purpose of this essay is to highlight the inequalities that have plagued Chinese higher education with a specific focus on universities arguing that the growth of the sector has led to inequalities.

The period focusing on higher education

In less than a fifth of the period that has been consumed other large nations to complete the similar transition, Chinese university education has successfully transitioned from the upper class to a mass system. The development effort started in 1999, with a yearly rise in new enrolment rates of 47.2%, which was a significant rise from the previous year (Liu, Li, & Xie, 2020). The fast rise of university education lasted until 2004, when the overall number of individuals enrolled in all types of university education was more than double that of 1998. Following 2004, the number of students enrolled kept growing, although at a lesser speed. During this time, the magnitude of Chinese university schooling reached that of the United States system, and the country’s enrolment quantity topped that of the entire globe. Around the same period, the Chinese government developed two large elite university plans, dubbed the “211” and “985” projects, which were both successful. These programs demonstrated the state’s willingness to help a limited handful of premier colleges and elevate them to an international level of achievement and prestige. Further to receiving large extra resources, the best institutions chosen for this initiative were also home to the majority of the state’s graduate schooling programs and research activity (Tang, 2016). The most prestigious of the institutions were shielded from overexpansion in order to concentrate on reaching worldwide greatness; expansion occurred mostly in the lower levels of the educational hierarchy. The majority of the extra enrolments were taken up by local universities, which included newly established higher vocational colleges as well as private institutions. Most prominently, from 1.36 million in 1997 to 1.63 million in 2005, the number of students enrolled at the country’s leading universities expanded mostly in a figurative fashion, at the graduate echelon or with the establishment of new programs. Local institutions, on the other hand, experienced the greatest rise in enrolment during the same timeframe, going from 1.79 million to 11.89 million. 

Vertical diversification expanded the gap between elite and non-elite universities as a result of this. It is even more astonishing to note that, in 2002, research funding was awarded to 72 national higher education institutions under the Ministry of Education, which were close to twice as large as those awarded to 1,154 local universities. In comparison to local universities, their research expenditure was on aggregate over 24 times larger than that of the latter (Postiglione, 2020). It was in this setting that debates erupted over the trade-off between effectiveness and equity in the development of Chinese postsecondary learning, which has since been resolved. Increasing the scale of China’s educational system, on one side, made it possible for more learners to pursue university education, whilst stratification signified an attempt to improve the overall efficiency of the Chinese educational system. Alternatively, the additional enrolments were primarily taken up by local and low-echelon universities, resulting in a varied and frequently impaired educational experiences for the vast majority of students, so considerably damaging educational equity overall (Zhenzhong, Binjian & Liang, 2019). The children of the working classes have been steadily extending their access opportunities to all sorts of postsecondary learning, and the access inequality between provinces has been greatly reduced as a result of the increased access to tertiary education in general. The disparity between different socioeconomic groups on the basis of higher learning opportunities, nevertheless, is expanding, according to empirical findings, which date back to the beginning of China’s endeavours to increase the number of people enrolling in postsecondary learning. In addition, it has been pointed out that individuals from stronger family origins on the basis of education, geography, occupation, and economic position had better possibilities to attend elite colleges, and that these groups grew increasingly favoured over the course of the century.

Massification of universities

University education in China was massified along with the decentralization of its educational system, resulting in the vast majority (about 95 percent) of institutions of higher learning being under local administration (Marginson, 2018). A large number of recently established universities and other higher vocational institutions make up the majority of the university education institutions. It is reasonable to argue that it is local institutions that have contributed to the massification of university education. During the period 1997-2005, they expanded by 2.5 times based on aggregate total and by 7.7 times on the basis of entire enrolments. This decentralization occurred at a time when colleges and universities of China were receiving smaller and smaller state financing at all ranks, which was arguably unavoidable given the country’s rapid growth.

A cost-recovery and cost-sharing strategy, which established tuition as well as other payments for undergraduates and no more considered the government as the primary supplier of higher learning, contributed to the growth and decentralization of postsecondary learning. This approach resulted in significant rises in university fees and, as a result, a dichotomous structure in the funding of Chinese postsecondary learning, with fiscal expenditures serving as the primary means of finance and tuition fees serving as the secondary funding source (Zha, 2020). However, in contradiction to the shrinking portion of state expenditures over time, the portion of tuition fee funding has steadily increased over time, rising from nearly none in the 1990s to about 33percent of overall revenue in 2005. Because several local universities got significantly lower state financing than their national counterparts, it is understandable that student fees accounted for a significant portion of total earnings in several cases (Mok, 2016). Because of the limitations placed by their limited financial resources, local institutions were forced to give educational programs of inferior quality in comparison to those made available by national universities, and they were unable to continue funding the learning programmes and career development of their learners. As a result, students spent a disproportionately larger amount to attend local higher education institutions while receiving a lower-quality education (Uwamahoro & Mcjerry, 2017). These learners tended to come from families with lower socioeconomic status. As a result of such circumstances, the attention of scholarly discourse has shifted away from accessibility equality and toward educational equity. Education equity refers to providing learners with a similar and proper schooling that is tailored to their individual needs based on learning capabilities. Access equality on the other hand refers to the provision of accessibility to all irrespective of their socio-economic condition and circumstance (Liu, Green, & Pensiero, 2016). The provision of equitable resource support to both institutions and individuals, according to some, is essential to ensuring educational fairness in higher education. The growing gap in resources between national tertiary institutions and local institutions, as observed by Pang Guobin, is a result of the increase in postsecondary learning enrolment during this period, according to the author.

The voices of activists were among the first to demand action to tackle the issues of unequal access to higher education exacerbated by tuition fees, championing for a variety of financial aid programs, including student aid, scholarship programs and bursaries, as well as the utilization of student loans, to assist those students who could not otherwise afford to continue their postsecondary studies (Zhang & Wang, 2021). It has been argued that the Chinese government’s present student financial aid strategy, which is based mostly on loan programs instead of bursaries, has achieved little or nothing to assist the country’s most vulnerable students. The implementation of a state bursary scheme to assist individuals living in extreme poverty at a level comparable to the least urban standard of living is advocated by the author, who points out that the government began guaranteeing a monthly subsidy of 150 yuan to the impoverished 5 percent of individuals enrolled in institutions of higher learning in 2005, and that this program has now been extended to all students. Prior research draws attention to the fact that education and other fees levied by universities increased dramatically in the 1990s, particularly when contrasted to growth in income for both rural and urban populations during that period. Approximately 189 percent of the average income of rural and urban inhabitants, correspondingly, was spent on tuition as well as other post-secondary costs in 2003, making higher education unattainable for several low-income households, and particularly those residing in rural communities. Prior studies indicate that student funding was allocated fairly throughout a range of various categories of universities and institutes of higher learning. It was students at more selective institutions, who had elevated chances to come from better-off homes, who gained disproportionally from this, according to research (Luo, Guo, & Shi, 2018). Because less selective institutions of higher learning enrol a higher population of individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, this strategy resulted in approximately 20% of low-income students receiving no financial assistance. As a result, Luo and his co-researchers predicted that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds will bear a disproportionate share of the financial burden of tuition and other costs.

Social stratification

Before China’s enrolment expansion began in the 90s, social stratification was apparent in the country’s universities and colleges. The average youngster from a rural family has 5.6 times less likelihood to attend higher education than his or her non-rural peers, according to the data (Gruijters, 2017). If the top universities are considered, the disparity increases to 9.2 times, and the gap increases even further to 17.9 times for higher learning institutions in general and 31.7 times for the elite universities when the student of a commoner and that of an official are taken into consideration separately. Imbalances in higher education access, according to Zhang and Liu, are caused by a disparity in resources between rural and urban institutions, an unequal distribution of admittance quota system between rural and urban regions, and structural weaknesses in the admission procedure that permit for corrupt practices in the admission procedure. The segmentation of Chinese postsecondary learning, which in turn has an impact on the results of university education, exacerbates the inequalities in the supply of resources. 

The socioeconomic status of a family has an impact on the likelihood of a high school student pursuing a higher study as well. Based on the findings of numerous studies, it has been noted that people from higher-income households have a greater likelihood of enrolling in national universities, which are more likely to be concentrated in the eastern area of China and to be kitted with superior post-secondary resources, whereas individuals from lower-income families are have increased likelihood of enrolling in local universities which usually offer lower educational quality (Liu & Ma, 2018). Obviously, the economic status of a family is not the only factor that contributes to unequal access to higher learning in China. There may also be differences in the likelihood of individuals from the same financially deprived family enrolling in university. When it comes to this, gender may play an essential influence. If a family is unable to take all of their kids to universities due to financial constraints, they may prefer to send men instead of ladies to school, for instance (Murphy, 2018). According to Chinese culture, boys are usually held to a higher standard of responsibility when it comes to caring for their aging parents as well as grandparents. As a result, it is possible that investing in sons’ schooling will be more beneficial than investing in daughters’ schooling (Luo, Guo, & Li, 2021). The significance of gender in academic disparity in China is predicted to get more complex over time, as the country’s economic growth progresses on the one side, and as the country’s one-child policy and expanding boy-favouritism sex-at-birth ratio, on the other, continue to grow in importance.

Ethnic identity has also been examined as a factor of educational inequality in China, and a positive correlation has been highlighted. In this approach, a strong focus placed on the importance of language. However, even though ethnic minority individuals may be eligible for state assistance in the form of special privileges for entrance tests and financial means to cater to tuition fees, for instance, their lack of Mandarin fluency may place them at a significant disadvantage in their educational and professional pursuits. They may also experience difficulties integrating into schools or colleges as a result of their minority status and the insufficient knowledge of non-minority individuals with minority cultures, among other factors. In addition to the language barrier, integration issues may make it increasingly challenging for disadvantaged individuals to connect successfully with their peers in order to exchange ideas, complete group projects, and attain desired academic results. As a result, their educational opportunities may be constrained.


Over the years, scholars, lawmakers, and the public at large have debated the issue of educational inequality in China, which has been a heated topic for decades. Following the fact that education in general and university schooling in precise have become one of the primary policy focuses of the government ever since the 1990s, the study and discourse on the subject have gotten even more intense and extensive in recent years. According to the findings, the economic background of a family has been for several times cited as a significant factor in deciding whether a child would be able to attend school or not. Families from low socioeconomic origins may as well be less capable to provide for the wellbeing of children as a result of this. Even though these individuals may be permitted to attend school, their medical status may make it increasingly challenging for them to successfully finish all classes while maintaining high concentration levels and energy. Because of this, it is possible that they will not be able to attain equivalent academic performance to their healthier fellow students.


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