When the Communist Party of China took over the country from the Kuomintang government in 1949, it inherited a tiny higher education system tailored to the needs of the country’s elite. Most college students were from the upper classes; that year, the total number of college graduates nationwide was just 21,000.
China has made considerable progress in expanding access to higher education over the past 70 years, producing 9 million college graduates in 2021 alone. The effects of this progress have been mixed, however.
The People’s Republic’s first push for higher education expansion took place almost immediately. In the 1950s, officials adopted the Soviet educational model, with its heavy emphasis on technology and engineering training. At first, expansion was slow, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Great Leap Forward attempted to end elitism and close the educational gaps among workers and peasants. The government established new universities and colleges around the country and increased access to higher education for all citizens. According to official records, the number of postsecondary institutions increased from 212 in 1957 to 1,289 in 1960. The number of comprehensive universities fell while the number of specialized colleges, including engineering institutes and teacher training colleges, grew.
This ambitious expansion movement did not achieve its goals. Higher education expansion in the Great Leap Forward led to chaos, as the low quality of education provided by new institutions could not meet the country’s demands. In 1962, as the government pulled back from the Great Leap program, the number of postsecondary institutions fell by more than half. A few years later, the Cultural Revolution led to the collapse of China’s higher education system. The national college entrance exam, or gaokao, was canceled, and college students were selected based on their class background rather than academic abilities.
Alongside the post-Cultural Revolution “reform and opening-up” policy, China’s higher education system transformed from a socialist egalitarian model into a “merit-based” model. In 1977, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping officially resumed the gaokao. Approximately 5.7 million people took the test in the winter of 1977, and 270,000 students were accepted into college.
Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has taken a number of measures to expand higher education access. The most recent higher education expansion took place in 1998, when the CPC and the State Council — China’s cabinet — announced a national plan to develop higher education and set up new institutions of higher learning. In 1999, the total number of enrolled college students was 1.6 million, a 47.4% increase compared to the previous year.
This wave of expansion has been driven by a number of factors, including the government’s desire to develop a knowledge-based economy and improve the nation’s human capital. China has also seen a dramatic growth in GDP in the 2000s, leading to an increased demand for educated workers.
The Chinese government has responded to this demand by investing heavily in higher education, both in terms of infrastructure and resources. Annual college enrollment has increased more than nine times, from 1 million in 1997 to more than 9.6 million in 2020. Accompanying the expansion has been a dramatic increase in the number of higher education institutions, from 1,020 in 1997 to 2,738 in 2020. In 2021, the total number of students enrolled in various forms of higher education was 44.3 million. According to the 2020 census, 15.5% of Chinese now have a college degree or higher.
Higher education expansion has had numerous positive impacts on China’s economy and society. First, it has increased access to educational resources, particularly among people from rural and lower-income backgrounds. In addition to increased recruitment, the government has expanded student loan and scholarship schemes, as well as introduced tuition fee waivers and grants. This has enabled more individuals to access higher education and helped to reduce educational inequality.
Second, the expansion of higher education has also helped improve the quality of China’s human capital. The government has invested heavily in improving the quality of teaching and research in higher education institutions, as well as in providing more resources for students. This has led to a marked improvement in the quality of graduates, which has in turn helped boost the country’s economic competitiveness. Empirical studies show that China’s higher education expansion raised earnings by 17% for men and 12% for women, respectively.
But has all this progress translated into increased social mobility? In their influential book “Silent Revolution,” James Lee, Liang Chen, and Zhang Hao found a positive link between higher education expansion and student body diversity between 1949 and 2002. During this period, 30% of Peking University students and 40% of Soochow University students came from worker or peasant families. Experts have argued that higher education expansion enables more people to access higher-paying jobs, resulting in a more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity and benefitting the country’s overall social and economic development.
However, others hold a more critical view of China’s higher education expansion. Although higher education expansion is typically associated with reduced inequality, many sociologists have demonstrated that it does not necessarily lead to equal distribution of access to education across social classes.
For example, theorists of what is known as “effectively maintained inequality” have found that socioeconomically advantaged groups tend to reproduce their advantages quantitatively if possible. But whenever inequality cannot be maintained in this way, privileged groups will differentiate themselves instead by obtaining qualitatively superior credentials. In China, this has resulted in increasing elitism within the education system: As more and more people are able to access higher education, competition for places at top universities has actually become more intense.
This competition favors those from wealthier backgrounds. Using data from the Beijing College Student Panel Survey, the scholar Wu Xiaogang found that socioeconomically advantaged students are more likely to attend elite colleges and benefit from special admission policies.
Other studies suggest that the rapid expansion of higher education has produced an oversupply of graduates. This has caused an increase in graduate unemployment and cast a pall over higher education’s promise of social mobility, as many graduates are unable to find jobs and are forced to take low-paying jobs for which they are overqualified. Researchers like Li Shi, John Whaley, and Xing Chunbing have found that higher education expansion after 1998 sharply increased the unemployment rate among young college graduates.
Another complication of higher education expansion is the deterioration in educational quality. The speed of the expansion has spawned a number of poorly equipped and poorly staffed institutions, resulting in an overall reduction in the quality of teaching and research. It is an open question of how much students are benefitting from their four-year investment in higher education.
Given the growing demand for educated workers as China seeks to move up the value chain, officials will likely continue to prioritize higher education expansion. Indeed, in 2021, the gross college enrollment rate, which measures the ratio of college-age individuals currently enrolled in higher education, was 57.8%, a 3.4% increase over the previous year.
The challenge now is: Can China improve the quality of its higher education without destabilizing the broader higher education system? This will require investing more in research and innovation, as well as in teaching. The country will also need to come up with effective ways to assess and address the oversupply of graduates and the deterioration of educational quality in some institutions, or else risk its effort to promote educational equality backfiring.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Students at a college fair in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, June 2014. Yang Yifan/VCG)