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.