Urban graduates benefit most among China’s ‘floating’ population

Study reignites debate over notion that success in gaokao exams and graduation from university has ‘life-changing’ effect on those from rural areas

December 18, 2021
Source: iStock

A study has found that rural graduates benefit less from a university degree than their urban counterparts among China’s “floating population” – the country’s pool of highly mobile workers.

The finding raises question marks over the widely accepted notion that the country’s notoriously pressurised national university entrance exam – the “gaokao” – has a life-changing effect on students from rural areas.

An analysis of data on the country’s floating population in 2015 concludes that the urban-urban group – those originally from a city who went on to work in different cities – gained most from higher education in terms of salary, career longevity, work location and such. Among graduates in the rural-urban floating population, who grew up non-metropolitan regions and migrated to cities for work, only the very top earners enjoyed comparable returns on their education, with many of the benefits of higher study not trickling down or being evenly spread across this group.

In China, most people attend college locally, said Ding Xiaozhou, an assistant professor in the department of economics at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who has conducted research based on Chinese population censuses from 1990 to 2015. Among those who earn a degree in their home province, about 10 per cent end up working in another province, he said. This contrasts with people who study outside their home province – about 90 per cent of this group find employment outside their home province after graduation.

“I would say the conventional idea about gaokao is still valid,” Dr Ding said. “Being a college-educated individual increases migration propensity – and being able to move significantly improves job-match success and workers’ welfare, especially for rural students.”

Another study published in November exploring the higher education rewards of the floating population concluded that, compared with local labour, the rate of education return among urban-urban and rural-urban mobile populations increased by 15.5 per cent and 27.2 per cent, respectively.

“Higher education has the greatest positive impact on salary growth on rural [people] among the floating population, which plays an important role in their social mobility,” Huang Jing, co-author of the study and an associate professor at the School of Finance and Business at Shanghai Normal University, told Times Higher Education.

The study also found that mobile workers in general enjoyed more gains from higher education than local labour, regardless of whether they came from rural or urban areas, a point that “has rarely been discussed” by academia, according to the researchers.

These findings, according to Dr Huang, highlight the need for more reform of regional talent policies that link benefits to geographic origin and for the removal of obstacles that hinder free movement of labour.

“We should continue to improve the quality of higher education and encourage university students to move freely after graduation,” Dr Huang said. “This is one way we could maximise the value of higher education in [terms of] human capital investment.”


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