University challenge

Where have all the rural graduates gone?

University challenge

Parents accompany students on their first day and bed down on the floor of a university gymnasium in Wuhan

According to Confucius: “If a son is uneducated, the father is to blame.” But what responsibility does the grandfather hold?

A remark by Wen Jiabao – who is affectionately nicknamed ‘Grandpa Wen’ – has triggered some soul-searching.

“When we were at college, children from rural areas made up 80% or more of the students,” the prime minister told the Xinhua News Agency. “Now it is different. The number of rural students has declined. This is something I often think of.”

The Guangzhou Daily cites recent statistics that show the proportion of rural college students has halved in the past 30 years. On the contrary, students from the cities have occupied an increasing proportion of university places.

“This is a very interesting issue,” says Zhang Zizhen, a director at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences.

Academics like Zhang note that it is no coincidence that the analysis uses comparative data from 30 years ago. This time span captures the entire period of China’s ‘opening up and reform’ era, as well as the years that have seen the cities grow faster and richer, leaving vast swathes of the more populous countryside behind economically – and educationally too.

Those born in the cities – particularly the ones on the east coast – are likely to have a better chance of going to university and getting ahead. Those born in rural areas, on the other hand, have less access to higher education, and are also likely to have fewer opportunities for social and economic advancement. This is the situation that seems to be worrying Wen.

It also points to the problem of the ‘two Chinas’. To put this in perspective, imagine you were given a choice between being born in America or India. You weigh up the odds of being born to an affluent Indian family versus an affluent American one, or perhaps the chance of being born in a US ghetto versus an Indian shanty town. The romance of Slumdog Millionaire aside, most rational people would choose the better odds in America. Now transpose that to China. Switch America for urban Shanghai, and India for rural Gansu. Roughly the same odds apply.

Basic economics partly explains the drop in rural college students. The Guangzhou Daily interviewed a village leader in Deqing County. “Affordability is the most practical reason,” says Dai Zhaokai. He cites the example of his relative who is a single parent. His son had been admitted to university, but for financial reasons he could not go, and entered the army instead. “This is very normal in rural areas,” says Dai.

Most rural parents cannot afford for their children to stay in school past the age of 15. Liao Yongbo, a teacher at Shepang Middle School in Guanxu Town observes: “There are virtually no village children going to senior high school and without senior high school studies, it is naturally impossible for them to go to college.”

He adds: “Back in the 1990s, the villagers still strived to cultivate college students. Around seven or eight in the village would go to college each year. But starting from 2003, I have seldom heard of college students coming from the surrounding villages – except one that I heard was admitted to the Guangdong University of Business in 2006.”

The problem for rural schools are manifold: they lack lab equipment and computers, and the best teachers gravitate to the cities. English-language teachers are also almost non-existent in China’s countryside. This is significant since oral English tests have become part of many university entrance examinations.

Zhang Minqiang, the director of Higher Education at Sun Yat-sen University agrees with Wen Jiabao: “When I studied here in the 1970s, rural students like me accounted for 70-80% of the class.” Since 1998, the number has fallen to around 10%.

There is another way of looking at it, of course. Those same rural young people are often the ones going to work in coastal factories as migrant workers. Without this labour pool, China’s dynamic growth would not be possible. And as described in the book Factory Girls – see WiC6 – opportunities do exist for upward mobility among these migrants, so a lack of formal education is not necessarily an insurmountable issue.

Just don’t expect them to be able to quote philosophy, or discuss the merits of Tang porcelain.

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