The class ceiling | The Economist

NO CAR may honk nor lorry rumble near secondary schools on the two days next week when students are taking their university entrance exams, known as gaokao. Teenagers have been cramming for years for these tests, which they believe (with justification) will determine their entire future. Yet it is at an earlier stage of education that an individual’s life chances in China are usually mapped out, often in ways that are deeply unfair.

To give more students access to higher education, the government has increased its investment in the sector fivefold since 1997. The number of universities has nearly doubled. In 1998 46% of secondary-school graduates went on to university. Now 88% of them do. About 7m people—roughly one-third of those aged between 18 and 22—now gain entry to some form of higher institution each year.

China’s universities offer more opportunity for social mobility than those in many other countries, says James Lee of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But the social backgrounds of those admitted have been changing. Until 1993, more than 40% of students were the children of farmers or factory workers. Now universities are crammed with people from wealthy, urban backgrounds. That is partly because a far bigger share of young people are middle-class. But it is also because rural Chinese face bigger hurdles getting into them than they used to.

The problem lies with inequality of access to senior high schools, which take students for the final three years of their secondary education. Students from rural backgrounds who go to such schools perform as well in the university entrance exams as those from urban areas. But most never get there. Less than 10% of young people in the countryside go to senior high schools compared with 70% of their urban counterparts. The result is that a third of urban youngsters complete tertiary education, compared with only 8% of young rural adults.

One reason is that junior high schools in the countryside are far weaker academically than urban ones. Local governments invest less in them per student than they do in cities. Urban parents tend to be better educated and thus better able to help children with their studies. Rural pupils often suffer from a “poverty of expectations”, says Jean Wei-Jun Yeung of the National University of Singapore: they are not encouraged to think they can succeed, so they do not try to.

Expense is a huge deterrent for many. Governments cover the costs of schooling for the nine years of compulsory education up to the age of around 15. But at senior high schools, families must pay tuition and other expenses; these outlays are among the highest in the world (measured by purchasing-power parity). Many students drop out of junior high school—which is free—because rising wages in low-skilled industrial work make the prospect of staying at school even less attractive. Millions enter the workforce every year who are barely literate or numerate. Poor nutrition is also a handicap. Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Programme has found that a high incidence of anaemia and intestinal worms in rural areas affects educational performance.

Since the 1990s more than 200m people have moved from the countryside to work in cities. Many have left their children behind because of the difficulty of getting them into urban schools: the country’s system of hukou, or household registration, makes it hard for migrant children to enjoy subsidised education in places other than their parents’ birthplace.

But migrant children who do attend schools in cities usually get a worse education than their city-born counterparts. State schools that accept migrant pupils often operate what Pei-chia Lan of National Taiwan University refers to as “apartheid school models”. In these, migrant children are taught separately from urban ones in the same school, and are even kept apart from them in the playground. Since they are forced to take senior high-school exams in the hometown of their hukou, many have little choice but to return to the countryside to attend junior high school.

Source: The class ceiling | The Economist

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