Film of the Month: ‘Education, Education’ Reveals the Complexities of the Higher Education System in China

February 14, 2023

Still from
Education, Education
Dorotea Zwolinski

Since 1998, China’s higher education system has witnessed unprecedented growth, as the Chinese government implemented a new strategy aimed at expanding university admissions across the country to ensure stable economic growth. By 1999, a total of 1.5 million students enrolled in university, a 47.4% increase from the year prior. Higher education in China is now the largest in the world, with over 44.3 million students enrolled in universities and colleges across mainland China and a total of 240 million people have received higher education. However, access to higher education remains unequal, leaving rural communities highly underprivileged. 

With the rapid expansion of higher education enrolments and millions of graduates entering the job market each year, many continue to face economic uncertainty and instability.  In 2023 a new record of 11.58 million students will graduate and enter a job market where youth unemployment rates reach nearly 20%.  With the exponential rise of higher education enrolments, the Chinese job market has not been able to meet the rising demand for jobs.  

Fake Universities in China

THE WHY’s 2012 film, Education, Education, unpacks the realities and complexities of navigating the Chinese higher education system, where promises of a future free from poverty seem to be only attainable for the lucky few.  The film showcases the consequences of the privatisation of higher education in 1997, which ultimately contributed to the widening of the knowledge gap between the rich and the poor, by following the lives of Wang Pan, a high school graduate, Wan Chao, a university graduate struggling to secure employment, and Wang Zhenxiang, a tutor at a private fake University, selling a scam to prospective new students.

“University is your best way out. In China, it is the only way out.” This is a sentiment which is reiterated often during the film and reverberates throughout most social spheres of Chinese society. However, does this statement ring true when it is echoed by a scammer who attempts to recruit new students to a fake university?   

Wang Zhenxiang describes how fake universities in China, specifically target vulnerable students from rural villages who have no other option than to attend profit-driven universities.  The top-performing students have the opportunity to go to state-subsidized universities, whilst the rest are forced to attend private universities where they pay higher fees.  Some of these institutions claim to be legitimate private institutions offering accredited degrees. 

The exact number of fake universities in China, which still operate and actively recruit new students is unknown. As numerous fraudulent institutions are exposed yearly, government regulations insufficiently monitor new ones that are established in their place.  By following Wan Chao’s unsuccessful attempts at securing employment, it becomes evident that graduating from low-ranking universities is viewed as undesirable in the eyes of employers and profoundly hinders students from securing future employment.  

The Urban vs. Rural Divide

By 1999, after a 30-year ban on private education, there were more than 1,000 private higher education institutions across mainland China. Education has since become one of the most lucrative businesses in the country.  However, the policy of privatizing higher education has increased inequality, describes Wang Zhenxiang.  The quality and reputation of these institutions vary and are highly irregular, as schools in the city have better resources in comparison to rural schools that can’t afford good teachers.  Students from rural schools often are not able to attend universities that offer a good standard of education, and graduates from rural families are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to urban residents. Pan’s experience of growing up in rural China and struggling to obtain   good enough grades to ensure her placement at a top university, encapsulates the complexities of the higher education system in China.  Pan states, 

“For families like ours, If I quit my studies and work in the city, it will be hard for me to give my parents a better life in the future.  I believe with a degree I would have more chances to provide for them.  I always wanted to go to a top university, but I don’t think I am good enough.” 

The limitations placed on those living in rural areas have been further exacerbated by the existence of the hukou system, a household registration system which for decades divided people into two classes: urban vs. rural.  The system has been the source of much inequality as hukou status determines a wide variety of social benefits, ranging from what kind of education one’s children are able to receive, the ability to take out loans, where one is able to receive healthcare, and access to retirement pensions.  Additionally, internal migration remained heavily restricted for the past decades, obscuring rural students from settling in cities where they could access better education.

The film Education, Education poses the question: has the higher education system in China become just another lucrative industry which continues to choose profit over people? 

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