China's poor dig deep for academic glory

University education is now the big-ticket expenditure for rural families. John Morgan reports

February 17, 2011

In a poor village in the Zouping district of eastern China, two illiterate grandparents surprise an Australian academic with their admiration for a local student who won a place at Tsinghua University, the nation's most famous science institution.

In a second interview, a parent tells the researcher: "If you attend college, no matter what happens in the rest of your life, no one can ever take that away from you."

The conversations highlight the huge appetite for higher education in China, which seems undimmed by uncertainties in the graduate job market and rising tuition fees that in many cases exceed families' annual income.

Coupled with the nation's huge economic power, that appetite could help to reshape world higher education in the coming decades.

The Zouping residents were speaking to Andrew B. Kipnis, senior Fellow in the departments of anthropology and political and social change at the Australian National University.

Dr Kipnis sought to find the roots of Chinese people's intense and apparently universal desire for higher education.

His research has resulted in a forthcoming book, Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China, due to be published by the University of Chicago Press in April.

Dr Kipnis conducted the bulk of his research in Zouping - a "relatively middling rural county" until the mid-1990s, when rapid economic growth began.

He visited three primary schools and spent a month at each, conducting surveys of pupils and visiting their homes. He also sat through months of sixth-grade classes - sometimes pining for the bell to ring, sometimes gripped by the lessons - and was occasionally mobbed by pupils asking for his autograph.

As a scholarly study of the Chinese fervour for education, Dr Kipnis' book is well timed.

Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor of Chinese parentage, recently brought the theme to popular attention in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011).

The ethos of the book is summed up in her Wall Street Journal article titled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior". Professor Chua explains that she banned her children from such activities as watching television, attending sleepovers and getting "any grade less than an A".

Historical factors

So why does Dr Kipnis believe the Chinese have such a fervent desire for higher education?

In an interview with Times Higher Education, he pointed to the interaction of certain "historical processes" that have intertwined in all East Asian countries.

These include the late but rapid industrialisation of formerly agrarian societies, which has devalued farming and sparked a desire for more prestigious occupations.

China's strong tradition of "literary masculinity" is also a factor, as "places where literary endeavours are seen as feminine rarely develop high levels of educational desire".

Dr Kipnis also identified the vital role played by nationalist elites that have "come to see the promotion of educational endeavours as essential to national strength".

Dr Kipnis found that annual university fees in China are between 11,000 and 15,000 yuan (£1,000-£1,400) for most Zouping households with a child in college.

The average annual income of a working adult in Zouping is roughly 10,000 yuan.

Initially sceptical of Chinese officials' claims that all students who meet the grade at school find a way to pay these fees, Dr Kipnis writes that he "became more convinced" as he conducted interviews in poorer rural areas.

He says that "university education has replaced house building as the most important large-ticket expenditure for many rural families".

This willingness to pay high fees is one indication of the "glory attached to educational success", he adds.

Dr Kipnis told THE that one of the effects of this extreme desire for higher education was the emergence of new pressures on ethnic relations, as "some groups in China reject the educational preoccupations of the Han majority, resulting in tensions".

There is more evidence of social mobility in top Chinese universities than their equivalents in the US or UK, Dr Kipnis added, thanks mainly to exam-centred competition.

"On the other hand, the meritocratic ideologies that circulate along with, and help to reinforce, high levels of educational desire are often used to justify some of the extreme economic inequalities evident in China today," he said.

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