The massification of higher education: Chinese student experiences

Is class becoming as important as academic attainment in China? asks Ka Ho Mok

June 13, 2016
Crowd of graduates waiting for job fair, China
Source: Getty

In the past two decades, there has been a rapid expansion of higher education in mainland China and Taiwan. While in the 1990s this increase enhanced equity and equality in society, in recent years the growing number of graduates has led to fewer employment opportunities and a skills mismatch in the labour market. 

Massifying higher education and intensifying social inequality

Based on case studies and interviews with university students in China and Taiwan (see related files below), there is strong evidence that as the returns of a university degree have flattened out, many university graduates in these Chinese societies have become identified as the urban working poor. 

Some might predict that as supply and demand pressures reduce the pay premium for degrees, income inequalities in society would be reduced. Yet the expansion of higher education could actually intensify inequality. 

Coming soon: THE Asia University Rankings 2016

As the value of a degree has declined, the graduate labour market has become skewed in favour of those with greater social capital. Socioeconomic status is exerting a stronger influence on the opportunities available to graduates, resulting in a worsening of social mobility and income inequality. 

Understanding the nature and consequences of how graduates "valorise" their academic credentials is therefore central to any understanding of how education can bring about greater social justice. 

Widening income gap between local graduates and returnees 

Local university students and graduates in mainland China are unsatisfied with the growing income gap between locally trained university graduates and returnees graduating from overseas universities. 

The latter graduates have better employability and employment packages, with higher wages. Local graduates are unhappy not only because overseas graduates return home to compete with them for jobs but also because of the differential treatment they receive. 

A crisis in education governance framework   

In a world in which global labour markets have been transformed through a highly skilled and well-educated labour force with relatively cheap wages, contemporary society is facing a crisis in its education governance framework. 

The educated youth in highly competitive global cities must compete for urban resources, such as elite education. But many students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have found the conventional distributive framework to be problematic. 

When analysing the relationships between education and social mobility, we therefore cannot rest upon the conventional notion that education promotes social equality and social justice, because gentrification in most global cities surely raises the issue of class and class inequalities. 

Ka Ho Mok is vice-president and chair professor of comparative policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

This blog is based on the findings of a working paper for the Centre for Global Higher Education (see related files), where he is an international co-investigator.

Write for us

If you are interested in blogging for us, please email

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

celebrate, cheer, tef results

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

Senior academics at Teesside University put at risk of redundancy as summer break gets under way

Tef, results, gold, silver, bronze, teaching excellence framework

The results of the 2017 teaching excellence framework in full. Find out which universities were awarded gold, silver or bronze