Overseas study augments advantages of China’s elite graduates

Those who can afford it get top degrees both at home and abroad, report shows

July 28, 2021
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Students from wealthy and politically connected families in China are getting ahead by piggybacking two levels of higher education attainment: they are more likely to be admitted to top Chinese institutions, and even more likely to add a second degree at a top US university, new research shows.

This practice “combines elite status at home and abroad”, according to a paper published in Studies in Higher Education, which included a survey of 1,417 graduates from an elite institution in China.

It found that 43 per cent of the graduates come the families of “leading cadres and senior executives”, 27 per cent from the “professional class”, 12 per cent from the “urban working class” and 7 per cent from “agricultural workers” – even though blue-collar and rural families make up the majority of the general population.

This trend goes against the government’s stated aim of using a single national college admissions test, which is supposed to be a social equaliser.

“Elite universities are more likely to recruit students from privileged backgrounds, despite [the] seemingly meritocratic selection [from] the gaokao,” they write.

The gap becomes even wider among undergraduates who receive postgraduate offers at overseas universities. Among this cohort, the children of “leading cadres and senior executives” and “professionals” jump to 54 per cent and 32 per cent respectively. Meanwhile, the children of “urban working class” and “agricultural” families drop to 6 per cent and just over 1 per cent respectively.

The students from higher socio-economic classes “up the prestige game by actively pursuing study-abroad opportunities,” the report says. “This prestige game locks out even elite graduates without adequate economic resources.”

Of the more than 500,000 Chinese students who head overseas each year, at least 90 per cent are self-financed. Students with prior foreign educational experience are more than twice as likely to pursue an overseas postgraduate degree. 

The paper’s authors told Times Higher Education that overseas qualifications were seen as more valuable “partly because elite universities align themselves with international prestige systems, and partly because the government’s drive to be ‘world-leading’ incentivises elite universities to attract global talent”.

Initiatives such as the Thousand Talents Plan give lucrative incentives to those with overseas qualifications, particularly “returnee” Chinese.

This has had the “unintended consequences” of “alienating disadvantaged social groups” and deepening the social divide.

“The state’s recent pursuit of global talents effectively excludes the working-class and agricultural families without providing an inclusive and convincing meritocratic rationale,” the authors write.

They say their project fills a hole in existing higher education study. While Chinese student mobility has “attracted considerable research attention”, because of the cohort’s spending power, “obvious gaps exist” in analyses of how this mobility affects students actually in China.

The authors argue that educational meritocracy is integral to “China’s reform and opening up” and for “social and political stability”. However, “there is no easy solution, given the highly unequal distribution of educational resources across China”.

For a follow-up paper, which has not been published, they conducted lengthy interviews with 36 undergraduates at an elite Chinese university, who had received unconditional offers at prestigious foreign universities.

For many, one goal of going overseas was – ironically – to network with other affluent Chinese students. “I don’t plan to socialise with Americans. My future is in China,” said one 22-year-old science student heading to an Ivy League college. “I want to be part of that distinguished group with the double elite degrees.”


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