Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: China

March 28

The Western China Dilemma

The South China Morning Post ran an interesting piece recently on the roll-out of China’s Thirteenth Five-Year Plan for Education.  It suggested that in the central and western regions of the country – that is, the poorer, non-coastal bits – the bulk of the task of educational development , including higher education, is going to fall on the private sector.  And yes, this is communist China we’re talking about.

Now at one level this might look like a smart move.  Across most of East Asia in places like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, the private sector provides the majority of spaces in higher education, so why not China?  And besides, parents are prepared to save vastly more for education in that part of the world and so cost is less of an object.  With the economy slowing, the Chinese government is becoming warier about spending money (at least on non-infrastructure projects), so a shift to a model where educational expansion is driven more by the private sector makes a certain amount of sense, right?

Well, I’m not so sure.  I suspect this is just storing up problems for later.

Educational opportunity is distributed very unevenly in China.  It’s not just that participation rates are much higher in the rich eastern provinces than in the poorer central and Western ones.  It’s also that the most prestigious institutions are concentrated in a relatively few areas, particularly Beijing and Shanghai.  This wouldn’t be a problem if these institutions had control over their own student intake and could accommodate the best and brightest from across the country, but they don’t. Instead, each is required to guarantee that a large majority of its places goes to students from its own region.

As everyone knows, in Asia there are two types of private institutions.  A very few of them – those with histories going back a century or so – are pretty good.  Think Keio and Waseda Universities in Tokyo, or Yonsei and Korea Universities in Seoul.  But the majority are pretty weak academically.  And so, what Beijing is offering to the poorer provinces is a lot of lower-quality education; but absent any big new investments in the public system, they aren’t going to get new access to prestige education, which is what the emerging middle class always wants.

Beijing has tried to deal with this problem by making some provinces – notably Hubei and Jiangsu – give up some of their reserved spots at top universities to allow students from these poorer areas.  As Mike Gow, author of the excellent Daxue blog, noted last year these two provinces were made to give up 26% and 18% of their spots this past fall, mostly for the benefit of Yunnan, Tibet and Guizhou provinces.

This, needless to say, has seriously ticked off parents in Hubei and Jiangsu.  In fact, some observers in Hong Kong suggest that this is leading to a new political consciousness among those  in the regions’ middle classes.  Indeed, one suspects the Party knew that this might be the case when it selected Hubei and Jiangsu as the test sites for these policies rather than the more politically sensitive Beijing and Shanghai regions.

The only way to solve this problem in the long run is to start gradually building up some flagship universities in the underdeveloped west.  But this five-year plan is pushing the party towards a quick-and- dirty approach to education in those areas, not a higher-cost quality approach.  Eventually, that’s going to lead to serious political problems either in the interior regions (if mobility continues to be restricted) or in eastern provinces (if mobility is allowed).

Greater affluence leads to greater competition for status goods like education.  To the extent the Communist Party wishes to maintain popular acquiescence to its rule, it has to satisfy those demands.  As growth slows, that task is getting harder.  Keep watching this space.

December 06

Alarm Bells in China

So, in the midst of all the handwringing about the world’s major higher education student destinations all losing their damn minds (Trump, Brexit) and the implications this has for higher education internationalization, I think we’re in serious danger of missing a much bigger story going on in China.

Don’t get me wrong.  Trump and Brexit are big stories, but on a global scale what they are going to do is shift mobility patterns a bit.  The precise English language destination countries will change (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and possibly Ireland) but neither event actually changes the underlying demand for quality English-language education.  And as long as demand holds up, internationalization across the globe as a whole will continue on.

But what happens if demand doesn’t hold up?

Now, we’re not at that stage yet.  Among middle class parents in China, there is still a lot of interest in international education, even if everyone’s first choice remains Peking or Tsinghua.  But the government, for a variety of reasons, has been making study overseas harder.  Last year, they have cracked down on the creation of new 2+2 or 3+1 programs, largely to keep corruption at bay (there were several institutions where found to be embezzling money associated with those programs).  In 2014, the government stopped approving new international programs at public high schools.  Last month, a new law banned for-profit schools from using international curriculum until grade 10.  The Minister of Education has called for a ban on “textbooks promoting Western values.”  (see this Economist story for more).  In short, the Chinese government is making it increasingly hard for Chinese parents to prepare their kids for study in foreign universities.

There is a balancing act going on here.  On the one hand, the Communist regime wants to limit potential sources of ideological contamination.  On the other hand, for many Chinese parents – perhaps especially Communist Party members, sending child abroad to study is still part of the “Chinese dream” (Xi’s daughter, for instance, studied at Harvard).  Moving too far, too fast in this direction could set off a lot of urban discontent, which the regime would prefer to avoid if possible.  But at the same time, the direction is unmistakable and we do not know how far the government intends to go.  If western values in textbooks are undesirable, at what point do individuals educated in the west at institutions steeped in western values also become undesirable?  If it becomes unpatriotic to hire foreign graduates – what then?

Now, I’m not even sure something of that magnitude would shut off the taps: lord knows there are a lot of people in China (again, including Communist Party members) who view having a child studying or working overseas as a pretty good insurance policy if things start to go sour in China.  So you could still imagine a big Chinese market for international education-cum-immigration.  But it might be more difficult to get those kids up to speed to get into a western university.

In that eventuality – and it’s one I definitely think all universities should be prepared for – attracting Chinese students is going require one to mean pursuing one of both of the following strategies.  First: attracting students at an earlier age (perhaps 14 or 15) and putting them through local Canadian high schools.  For wealthier families that means bringing mothers over as well; for everyone else, it would be interesting to for universities and school boards to jointly create some communal living arrangements (including student life personnel) to help Chinese students succeed.  Second: for students who stay in China through to the gaokao (i.e. age 18) and then decided that they wish to try study abroad, there is going to be an increase need for pathways providers to help students get through what will amount to a bridge year.  I suspect my colleagues at IDP and Navitas will be busy over the next few years.

In short: yes, Trump and Brexit represent big short-term opportunities for countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand because they divert demand.  But there remains a long-term threat to internationalization in that the Chinese Communist Party may move to actively suppress demand.  Keep your eye on the ball.


October 12

The Fractured Chinese Higher Education Market

We often casually refer to China as being a single higher education market, but that’s really not true.  It’s probably more accurate to say that it is 32 different markets (34 if you want to include Macau and Hong Kong), one for each of the 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 4 major municipalities (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin).  That’s not just because most higher education funding is local rather than national; it’s also because student mobility is significantly restricted, especially among top universities.

Let’s start with economics.  Broadly speaking, the coastal provinces  Inner Mongolia are fairly rich (on par with Greece and the Baltics by GDP per capita), the middle provinces such as Hubei, Heinan and Shanxi have GDP/capita roughly half that of coastal ones, and then further west GDP per capita drops by another 50% when you get to Yunnan, Sichuan, and Gansu.  It’s not quite as simple as that – Anhui and Jangxi are close to the coast but relatively poor, Xianjing is as far west as you can go and yet is part of the middle-band, Shanghai and Beijing are relatively wealthy, etc.  But the rule of thumb is: coastal provinces are rich, inner provinces are poor.

This matters to higher education for a couple of reasons, the main one being that for the most part, higher education is funded provincially.  There are, however, a few dozen universities which are primarily  administered and  funded from Beijing, most of which report to the Ministry of Education but some to other ministries (e.g. the Telecoms Ministry or the Army).  The 38 research-intensive “985” universities (so named because the policy which governs them dates from May 1998) receive massive amounts of central government funding. The 110-odd “211” universities (apparently a reference to having 100 21st Century universities…21-1(00)…no, I don’t get it either) also get some central funding despite being largely dependent on local funding.

The second reason this matters is that these “top-tier” universities (especially the 985s) are unevenly distributed around the country.  Beijing has seven of them, Shanghai 4, and Tianjin and Chongqing another 3 between them – meaning that nearly half of the top universities are in just four cities.  Indeed, fourteen provinces and regions have no 985 universities at all, and Tibet has neither a 211 nor a 985 university.  That wouldn’t be a major issue if it weren’t for a second important factor: student mobility in china is strictly limited.

Because universities are mostly funded locally, the local government gets to determine the number of spots at each university.  Unsurprisingly, poorer provinces have fewer spots than richer ones.  Which means cut-offs have to be higher; and since every state has control of its own gaokao exam, it’s become the case that different provinces have different levels of gaokao difficulty (there is a helpful service which compares them all and ranks them on difficulty – for the last couple of years it has been Jiangsu).

But despite regional differences in the difficulty  of the gaokao, universities treat all the provincial scores as equal.  This matters enormously because each province reserves spaces for local students – and limits spaces for out-of-province students.  Pretty much everyone in the country wants to get into one of the top Beijing universities, and yet these policies keep these institutions largely the preserve of locals.  Which is absolutely fine for the privileged few who live in Beijing (mainly public servants and party apparatchiks) but not so good for anyone else.  A student from Jiangsu not only takes a tougher gaokao than one from Beijing, but s/he has to obtain a much higher score in order to get into Tsinghua or Peking.  It’s considered a truism in those schools that the students from outside Beijing are of a much higher calibre than the locals.

This problem isn’t going away any time soon.  As Damian Ma and William Adams say in their excellent book In Line Behind a Billion People, this policy of reserving little educational plums for Beijing parents is one of those things that keeps the elite population behind the regime: in a democratic system there is simply no way that benefits would be concentrated this tightly (their chapter on education is called “Give me Equality: But Not Until After My Son Gets Into Tsinghua”).  So even as the central government tries to open spaces at top-tier (i.e. 985 or 211) universities for people from provinces where top-tier universities are scarce or non-existent, they are doing their level best not to put that burden anywhere other than Beijing or Shanghai.  This year, most of the growth in spaces for students from the western provinces fell on Hubei and Jiangsu, much to the anger of local residents who feared their own children would lose out as a result.

There is a lesson here for people interested in recruiting students in China, and it is this: ignore the coastal provinces.  Find the provinces with the hardest gaokaos and the fewest 985/211 institutions (Jiangxi is not a bad place to start).  There are a lot of frustrated families there.  Go talk to them.  They will be more price-conscious than the students on the coasts, but they will also probably be of higher quality.

October 05

A Brief History of Exams

Written exams are such a major part of our schools and universities that we forget sometimes that they are not actually native to the western system of education.  How did they become so ubiquitous?  Well here’s the story:

Originally, the Western tradition eschewed exams.  Universities offered places based on recommendations.  If one could impress one’s teachers for a few years, one might be invited to audition for right to be granted a degree. In medieval universities, for instance, one obtained a degree once one was capable of giving lectures or credibly argue a particular position in a debate format (the disputatio).  This was more or less the case right through until the 17th century.  This was completely different from how it was done in China.  There, ferociously difficult examinations for entry into the Imperial Civil Service had been the norm since the first century AD (give or take a couple of centuries of inter-dynastic interregnums due to societal collapse, civil wars, etc).  To help students through these exams, “academies” were created, which, with a bit of squinting, can be seen as forerunners of today’s universities (for more on early Chinese higher education see here).

In the late 16th century, a Jesuit priest named Matteo Ricci was sent to China and eventually rose to a very senior position within the order.  He was very impressed by the competitive and meritocratic nature of the Chinese examination system, and described it in glowing terms to his superiors in Rome.  Being a pedagogically-minded order, the Jesuits themselves adopted written examinations in order to make their own system tougher and more competitive.  In the 18th century, absolutist reformers trying to create meritocratic civil services (as opposed to ones run by aristocratic place-holders) decided to put the Jesuits’ “Chinese” system to work.  Starting in Prussia, then spreading around Europe over the following century, bureaucrats now had to pass examinations.  As more and more people tried to apply to the civil service, the universities – which were mainly prep schools for the civil service – became more crowded and gradually introduced their own entrance examinations as well.  The first of these was the German Abitur, which is still the qualification required to enter university.

The question of who set these exams – the education ministries in charge of secondary education?  the universities themselves? – was answered different ways in different countries.  In the United States, the Ivies maintained their own exams well into the twentieth century.  To keep out the riff-raff they would do things like test for ability in Greek – a subject not taught at public schools.  As universities began to expand the range of their intakes, they started to see problems with exams based on curricula and started looking for something that would measure potential regardless of which state or school they came from.  This led them to consider psychometric examinations instead, and hence the SAT was born.

Psychometric testing never really caught on outside the US (thought Sweden uses a variant of it).  Generally speaking, the dominant form of testing around the world remains a high-stakes test at the end of secondary school: the gaokao in China, the Korean suneung and the Japanese center are the most famous of these, but most of Europe and Africa operate on some variant of this (albeit without causing the same level of commotion and stress because European university systems are less hierarchically stratified than East Asian ones).  In many of the post-Soviet countries, university entrance exams were a source of lucre.  A prestige institution could set its own exam, and rake off money from students either through preparatory classes or by requesting bribes to pass.  The establishment of national university entrance exams in these countries were thus as much as an anti-graft measure as a pro-merit measure.

Many parts of the world – but particularly Asian countries – are seeing the downsides of basing so much on a single set of exams, and are trying in various ways to try to de-emphasize testing as a means of distinguishing between students, both because they are seen as overly stressful to youth and because the results have been time and again to reinforce class privilege.  The problem with the latter is that no one has yet come up with alternative measures of academic prowess or potential which are significantly less correlated with privilege; and exam results, whatever their faults, do provide transparency in results, and hence a greater appearance of fairness.

In short: there’s lots wrong with high-stakes exams, but they aren’t going anywhere soon.

May 17

How Rich are China’s Universities?

Last week, Mike Gow at the Daxue blog linked to some interesting data recently published by the Chinese government with respect to the budgets of the country’s top universities.  It only covers those institutions which report to the Ministry of Education (and therefore misses some important institutions like the University of Science and Technology of China (which reports to the Chinese Academy of Sciences) and the Harbin Institute of Technology (which reports to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology).  It suggests that, at the very top of the Chinese system, there are some jaw-dropping amounts of money being spent.

Let’s focus just on the C9 schools (the Chinese equivalent of the U-15/Russell Group/AAU/G-8, or at least on the seven for which data was provided).  Here is the data for 2015-16:

Table 1: Income & Enrollments of Top Chinese Universities


*From Wikipedia.  I know, I know, but it’s all I had.

**Using the Big Mac Index to covert from RMB to USD at rate of 3.57 to 1

Now, the jaw-droppingness of these figures depends a lot on whether you think it makes more sense to compare institutional buying power based on market exchange rates or based on purchasing power parity (PPP).  For universities, which pay salaries in local currency but compete for staff and pay for journals and scientific journals in an international market, there are some good arguments either way.  It should also be noted that it’s not 100% clear what is and is not in these figures.  Does Tsinghua’s figure include the holding companies that own shares in all of Tsinghua’s spin-off businesses?  Unclear.  My guess would be that it includes income from those businesses but not the businesses themselves – but it’s hard to know for sure.

Comparing these numbers to those of top American universities is somewhat fraught, because of the way American universities account for income from their teaching hospitals.  Thus Duke reports about twice as much income per student as Harvard because one includes medical billings and the other does not; if you correct for this, the two institutions are about the same.  Correcting as best I can for teaching-hospital income, and excluding Rockefeller University because it doesn’t really have any students and excluding Caltech (which has about $1 million/student in revenue) because it’s such an outliers and would break my nice graph, the top five in the US and the top seven in China looks like this:

Figure 1: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 US universities, in USD at PPP


The basic point here is that Peking and Tsinghua are – on a PPP basis at least, and excluding medical income on the US side without being sure that it is excluded on the Chinese side – at least roughly in the same league as Harvard, though not quite in the same league as MIT, Stanford and Johns Hopkins.  The rest of the Chinese universities trail a bit: the poorest of these, Xi’an Jiao Tong, would be at about the level of Berkeley if you use a PPP comparison, and Florida State if you use the exchange rate.

Now let’s move to the UK, where the top five universities in terms of dollars per student are Cambridge, Imperial College, University College London, Oxford and Edinburgh.    The comparison changes quite a bit depending on whether or not one uses PPP or exchange rates.  On a PPP basis, Tsinghua and Peking would lead all UK universities; on an exchange-rate basis, they would be 5th and 6th – that is, behind Cambridge, UCL, ICL and Oxford but still ahead of Edinburgh.  Either way it suggests that, financially at least, the top Chinese universities are on a similar playing field as the top UK ones.

Figure 2: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 UK universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP


Next, let’s go to Canada.  Here are the top five Canadian schools compared with the top seven Chinese ones.  On a PPP basis, UBC is the only Canadian university which would crack the top seven in China.  But on an exchange-rate basis, all of our top five would come ahead of Nanjing and close to Fudan.

Figure 3: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Canadian universities, in USD at Exchange and PPP


Finally, let’s take a look at Australia, where universities are frankly much less well-funded than elsewhere.  On a PPP basis, even the weakest of the C9 – Xi’an Jiao Tong – would come ahead of the best-funded Australian institutions (Australian National University).  On an exchange-rate basis, ANU would rise ahead of Xi’an Jiao Tong and Nanjing, but would still lag behind the other Chinese institutions, by a factor of 2:1 in the case of Peking and Tsunghua.

Figure 4: Total Income, Chinese C9 Universities vs. Top 5 Australian universities, in USD at Exchange & PPP


The bottom-line is that while most Chinese universities are still a ways away from the top international standards in terms of income, expenditure, research base, etc., at the very top it seems that the C9 institutions are now very much in the global elite as far as funding is concerned.  They are not yet there as far as research output is concerned – only Peking and Tsinghua make the Times Higher Top 100 and none make the Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities – but that’s only a matter of time.  Rankings (and prestige) are a result of cumulative effort and financing.  Another decade with these kinds of numbers will make a very big difference indeed.

October 22

Amusing Footnotes on Global Academic Pay

A few months back, I finished reading The Global Future of Higher Education and the Academic Profession: The BRICs and the United States (edited by – among others – Phil Altbach and Liz Reisberg). It’s a good book for two reasons: first, it contains pretty good thumbnail sketches of the four BRIC countries’ higher ed systems, and second, it shows how crazy and fragile academics lives are in most of the world.

(An aside here: one thing I really like about this book is that it just treats the four BRIC countries as entirely separate case studies, rather than four aspects of a similar phenomenon.  This is important because although BRIC was a handy acronym to encompass “big economies getting rich quickly in the mid-00s”, their vastly differing fates this decade shows that their economic similarities were pretty ephemeral.  And what goes for their economies goes double for their higher education systems, which are basically chalk and cheese.  The result is a much better product than the much more detailed, but conceptually muddled book by Martin Carnoy et al., University Expansion in a Changing Global Economy: Triumph of the BRICs.)

One of the highly amusing (to me, anyway) parts of this book was the way it underlined how academics get paid.  In all four countries, junior academic pay is substantially below average urban wages.  That sounds surprising – aren’t these people extremely well-educated?  Can’t they command big salaries elsewhere?  To which the answer is: yes, they can, which is why recruiting talented people to the academic profession is very difficult in some places (especially Russia and India).  But it’s worth noting also that with the exception of Russia, relatively few junior academics in any of these countries possess a PhD.  In most cases, they come with Master’s degrees (in Brazil, Bachelor’s degrees are still pretty common), and many never progress beyond that.  If they do get a doctorate, they often get it while receiving paid leave from their university, which is not a bad deal.

So one of the book’s themes are the various ways that academics make money outside of formal academia – either by moonlighting at other (usually private) universities, or by teaching in a test-prep or cram school.  Interestingly, in some countries, universities open their own test-prep schools specifically so as to provide moonlighting opportunities for their own profs, which sounds only just this side of crazy, but makes sense when you realize many of these places live with weird, bifurcated budgeting rules that put them in a straightjacket with respect to public money, but let them go hog-wild with self-generated income.

The rules on money from public sources play out in some very weird ways in China and India.  In these countries, base pay is centrally regulated.  But over the years, political compromises have allowed profs access to all sorts of pools of money outside their base pay.  In China, on top of base pay, there are separate allowances for housing, food, telephone, transportation and laundry.  India also has housing and transportation allowances, in addition to a “dearness allowance” (not a term of affection, but rather a cost of living adjustments), but also – and this is my absolute favourite – provides academics with a salary increment if they agree to a vasectomy or hysterectomy (conditions apply with respect to age, age of spouse, and number of children).

Basically, all these countries have highly centralized bureaucratic systems regulating institutional spending and pay, and all of them have a hard time treating money as fungible.  This creates all sorts of situations that look pretty inane on the outside, but if you block out the details it’s still just a story of institutions maximizing revenue wherever possible (which usually means meeting market demand), and paying professors whatever they can to retain talent (which can mean all sorts of things).

Still, it makes the American practice of paying profs for nine months and letting them make up the difference on research grants seem pretty simple by comparison.

September 21

The China “Crisis”

It’s no secret that China dominates the world market when it comes to sending students abroad.  About 20% of all globally-mobile students are from China; in countries like the US, Canada, and the UK, they are far and away the number one source of foreign students.  (In all three countries, Chinese students account for as many foreign students as the next four source countries combined.)

Now every once in awhile – more and more frequently these days – you get some bad economic data from China, and everybody wants to be the first person to predict the coming “China Crisis”: oh Dear Lord, Chinese students are going to disappear, how will everyone cope?

To which I say: chill.  The Chinese market isn’t going anywhere, at least not for economic reasons.

If the argument is that China’s financial turmoil might lower Chinese incomes, and therefore reduce the affordability of foreign education, you need to keep in mind that Chinese families don’t fund education the way we do.  They save.  A lot.  For years.  Unlike North American families, Chinese families don’t try to make things work using their current incomes.  And so unless Zhounior’s savings were fully invested in the Shanghai stock-exchange just before the crash, some short-term economic instability isn’t going to matter that much.

And if things get worse?  What if financial instability leads to political instability?  I’d say that’s more likely to lead to an increase in study abroad rather than a decrease.  For wealthy Chinese families, sending students abroad for their education is at least as much about giving kids a foot in the door for emigration as it is a tool with which to advance their careers in China.  Having your kid in a foreign university is a hedge against precisely this kind of political uncertainty.

Now, this doesn’t mean the Chinese market is impervious to decline.  The fall in the size of the Chinese university-age cohort still matters, but that’s a long-term phenomenon, not a short-term one.  The troubles that graduates have in the labour market is real, and is affecting the composition of demand for higher education.  But remember: the proportion of Chinese undergraduates who choose to study abroad every year is 1-2% of the total.  What happens in that 1-2% market is only barely related to what goes on in the mass market.  It’s like trying to guess what’s going on with Mercedes-Benz sales from the sale of Toyota Corollas. The “mass market” looks nothing like the “elite market”.

The single thing that would most disrupt the flow of students out of China would be a sudden and noticeable increase in the availability of enrolment places at prestigious domestic institutions.  That is, either the big prestigious institutions could expand, or new institutions could join the ranks of the elite; either would reduce the demand for foreign education.  But the former flat-out isn’t happening; and the latter, while not impossible, seems unlikely under present circumstances.

In short, there are solid reasons to prepare for an eventual cresting of demand from China.  But the prospect in the short-term of a bursting of the Chinese student “bubble” is less convincing.  Plan accordingly.

June 11

Tremors in China

I wanted to point everyone’s attention to a small article in the Chinese People’s Daily last Wednesday, which is potentially of enormous significance.

Apparently, of the country’s 31 Provinces, Municipalities, and Autonomous Regions, only seven have disclosed their figures with respect to higher education recruitment.  Every single one of them missed their targets, some by over 10%.  And these seven provinces represent a mix of economic backgrounds: Anhui and Quinghai are relatively poor interior provinces; Shandong and Fujian are richer coastal ones, and the balance are somewhere in between.  It’s a broad, broad swathe of the country – which makes it unlikely either that it’s a one-off fluke, or that the trends are much different in other non-reporting provinces.

Some are suggesting this is a demographic thing – but this is frankly nonsense.  Youth cohorts have been shrinking for several years now, and that hasn’t stopped the flood of students heading to higher education.  This is different.  This is a change in the participation rate.  It’s a change in the proportion of people who want to go to higher education.  It’s families finally starting to react to the high level of graduate under-employment.

This was the kind of thing the Chinese government was trying to forestall when it announced plans to convert 600 universities (out of 2400 in total) into polytechnics.  Indeed, given that the data was for 2013, it might actually have been the cause of the Party’s decision to transform these institutions.  But there’s no guarantee that, in fact, students want that kind of education either; as I explained back here, a major demand-driver for education in Confucian societies is the perception of moral goodness attached to higher studies, which may not be present in more technologically-oriented programs.  The party’s assumption that families skeptical about university education will head to polytechnics is unproven: it may be university or nothing.

What are the knock-on effects of this?  Remember that Chinese public universities took on $41 billion in debt to expand.  If they don’t have fee-paying students filling those seats, the chances of some universities defaulting is going to rise.  Ultimately, none are likely to fail – the prestige hit on local government would be too big – but you can see it leading to a general reining-in of university finance.

And the effect on Chinese students heading abroad?  Well, the era of scarcity in Chinese universities is already well and truly over – even before this drop, over 76% of gaokao-takers now get a place in universities.  Foreign universities don’t fulfill a demand-absorption function anymore – they are very clearly simply competing on quality with domestic institutions.  So far, there is no indication that this demand is slackening, which implies a great hunger in China for quality education, which not all local universities can yet provide.

But take it as a warning.  Youth numbers are declining.  Demand for university education even within the youth cohort is declining.  Eventually, this may translate into lower demand for foreign education as well.  Institutions who depend too heavily on this market may get burned.

April 17

The Changing Face of Student Protest

You may have missed this story, what with disappearing airliners, annexations in Crimea, and whatnot, but there has been a major and quite unique student uprising going on in Taipei over the past month.

The “Sunflower Student Movement” was born in mid-March when the Kuomintang government decided to try to ram a new trade treaty with China through the legislature, without permitting a clause-by-clause review or substantive public hearings.  Since the KMT are known to favour (eventual) reunification with China, many in the opposition saw the reluctance to face any oversight as evidence of a potential sell-out.  The result was a student-led occupation of Parliament for a little over three weeks, which eventually ended in a partial climbdown by the KMT.

Historically, this kind of student protest is pretty common.  When you look at the phenomenon of student protests in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, what you mostly see are political movements.  In South Korea, the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee was overthrown by students (the next military dictator prudently relocated Seoul National University across the river from the centre of government); in conjunction with the military, students did similar things in Bolivia, South Vietnam, Sudan, and Ghana.  Even in the developed world, student movements of the 60s had broad political aims – protesting the war in America, for social revolution in France, and for the “nationalist” cause in Quebec.

However, something very strange has happened to student politics over the past thirty years.  During this time, as higher education massified, student movements and organizations became less political.  Today, these movements have become much more concerned with “student” issues, such as student welfare, tuition fees, etc  (in the literature, these are known as “etudialist” issues).

Back in the 60s, when big names in Political Science like Seymour Martin Lipset thought it worth their time to edit books on student politics, this would have seemed unlikely.  The expansion of educational opportunity to poorer students was widely seen as being likely to further radicalize the student body. Yet, in fact, what massification seems mostly to have done is to make the student body more like the world at large: big, diverse, and anything but homogeneous in political thought.  And while that makes them less likely to be vanguards for social or political revolutions, it doesn’t preclude them from uniting to fight defensive battles when they feel their interests are threatened (for example, on tuition fees).

Thus, most of the really large student protest movements in the past three years – Chile, South Korea, and Quebec – have all fundamentally been about fees.  Conversely, while there have been some enormous social and political protests in places like Cairo, Kiev, and Athens, students have rarely played the leading roles that their counterparts did 40-50 years ago.  Only in Taiwan and – to a lesser extent – Venezuela, where student groups have been at the forefront of protests against the chavista government of Nicolas Maduro, have we seen students in the kinds of political confrontations that were the norm only half a century ago.

February 14

Chinese Higher Education: Where to From Here?

So, now that China has 30 million students and a half-dozen “world class universities”, where to next?

Well, the first thing to note is that the system hasn’t finished growing.  While the major metropolitan areas of the north and centre have PSE attendance rates that approach those in Canada, outside of those very small areas, the average is less than half that.  Even in fairly prosperous coastal provinces like Zhejiang and Guangdong, participation rates are less than half of what they are in the rich metropolitan zones.  Now, some of the growth in participation rates will be taken care of via demography.  China’s 20-24 age cohort will shrink in size by about a third between 2011 and 2016 thanks to the One Child Law (demographically, think of China as just a really big Cape Breton), so participation rates will rise significantly even if China does no more than stay steady in terms of enrolments.  But it’s still a safe bet that in most of the country, we can expect more universities to open, and existing second-tier institutions will need to be expanded.

Participation rates by Region, 2008









So with demand for education set to rise, and the country still struggling to absorb all the graduates from the past few years, I suspect the bigger issue going forward for China is going to be quality.  China’s worked out how to expand its system.  What it hasn’t done quite yet is worked out how to spread excellence beyond its top research schools (the Chinese equivalent of the Ivy League is the C-9: Peking, Tsinghua, Fudan, Zhejiang, Nanjing, Harbin Tech, University of Science and Technology of China, and the Jiao Tongs at Shanghai and Xi’an).

And even at these schools, some of the excellence is only skin deep: they might be able to butt into world league tables based on publication counts, by doing things like requiring all graduate students at 985 universities to get two publications in Thomson ISI-indexed journals (seriously… can you imagine doing that here? The system would totally collapse), but those articles’ citation counts are much lower than at large western universities, indicating that the rest of the scientific world doesn’t think they’re up to much.  But changing that means changing academic cultures – some of which have become sclerotic and corrupt (this stinging editorial in Science magazine [link is to an ungated copy] by two Chinese academics who had returned home from academic careers in the US, Shi Yigong and Rao Yi, is one of many pieces of evidence that could be cited here).  As we know here in North America, there is very little that is harder than changing academic cultures.  If China works out how to fix that problem, then there’s genuinely no reason it won’t lead the world at pretty much everything.  But I have my doubts.

The outlook in China then is pretty simple – mostly continuations of recent trends, with a greater emphasis on quality and employability.  And until they get that sorted out, there will continue to be opportunities for western institutions seeking to poach those who can’t get into 985 universities.

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