New research on massification of higher education in China

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China is often stated as the new upcoming power in higher education, shown both in the rapid expansion of enrollments and  increasing production of research and academic publications. While there has been some disagreement about whether it is primarily a quantitative or qualitative expansion, there is no doubt that China is prioritizing focus on knowledge and that there is also increasing amount of research published in international journals on Chinese higher education.

However, this rapid growth has had consequences as well and it is not guaranteed that the outcomes would necessarily be the ones anticipated, as in any policy process. In a recent publication in Higher Education, Xiaoyan Wang and Jian Liu examine this transition. The article highlights that the growth has indeed been on a huge scale, during just over ten years, there has been a growth from just under 10% participation rates to 24,2% in 2009.

The authors emphasize that this expansion was not spontaneous, but a planned measure to combat the consequences of the  Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 – the expansion was expected to give a boost to the economy, through increased need for infrastructure and consumption of educational resources. The underlying principle for this policy initiative was grounded in Keynesian thinking and human capital theory – meaning that investing in education and infrastructure has also positive short-term effects on consumption and thus the economy.

While the article indicates that there was indeed increased consumption and need for infrastructure, the initiative also had unintended consequences, most notably on the equity aspect of the students enrolled due to increasing tuition fees and an insufficient financial aid programme. In addition, this huge investment has also burdened the banks, and the researchers argue that this might have had a negative effect on potential growth in other sectors. The most worrying tendency brought out by the authors is the astonishing increase in the amount of unemployed graduates, and Xiaoyan Wang and Jian Liu thus argue that “China’s current social, economic and political structures are not ready to absorb them“.

The article concludes that while the Keynesian thinking presumed short term economic growth, the actual outcome ended up being a “redistribution of household savings“. From the human capital perspective, the authors argue that long term positive effects are also questionable, since the disciplinary balance of this expansion was also not well enough thought through.

This implies that under the flag of widening access and increased research production – the success story often heard, one can in fact also see the darker side of this development – marked by high graduate unemployment, increasing tuition fees and inequality, and increasing questions being raised over the long term effects of these developments.In addition, in a recent article published in Higher Education Policy, Hongshia Zhang et al also report high levels of dissatisfaction amongst undergraduate students, with various factors contributing to this – amongst else increasing pressure to publish. An earlier article in Higher Education, by Qiang Zha indicated that there is an increasing disparity between higher education institutions in China with a clearly emerging hierarchies between institutions – both in terms of quality, but also in terms of public funding, a tendency that Qiang Zha called ‘reinvigoration of elitism’, while this differentiation is not necessarily only negative and unique to the Chinese context, this definitely adds another layer of challenges.

This is perhaps a dire picture of the process of massification that has taken place in China. However, if the private rate of return is decreasing to such an extent and there is dissatisfaction amongst students, one might question whether maintaining this growth or even current enrolment rates is viable in the long run and what might be the long term consequences of this to the Chinese higher education system? What do you think?