Written by Jane Golley.

In the six and a half decades since the foundation of the People’s Republic, China has achieved remarkable advances in educating its vast population. This increase in human capital has contributed to, and in recent decades been facilitated by, the rapid rates of economic growth that have transformed China into the economic powerhouse that it is today.

Yet a persistent gap has remained between urban and rural China, with urban residents receiving between four and five additional years of schooling on their rural counterparts throughout the Communist era (see below chart). This remained the case even during the Cultural Revolution, when rural schools expanded rapidly and millions of Chinese youths were ‘sent down’ to the countryside, missing out on high school and university altogether. By the late 2000s, children from Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin were 35 times more likely to make it to college than children from rural areas, where progression beyond high school was limited to just 1.3 per cent.

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To understand these lingering rural-urban disparities, Sherry Tao Kong from Peking University and I are currently examining the determinants of educational outcomes (measured in years of schooling) in China using the China Family Panel Survey (CFPS) for 2010, which covers approximately 16,000 households in 25 provinces. The most obvious first contender is an individual’s hukou status, given the long-standing system that excludes rural migrants from a wide range of urban social services, including education. Indeed, we find that having an urban hukou at the age of 12 is associated with three additional years of schooling compared to rural hukou holders. Although this has dropped to a little over two years for the two youngest cohorts in our sample (those born in the 1980s), this remains a substantial ‘gift’ to receive simply for being born in one place, and not another.

The second major ‘gift’ comes from being born to parents who themselves were relatively well educated. This persistence in educational attainments across generations builds on a common theme in research on educational outcomes in China (and elsewhere) to date: that family origin matters. In urban China, it has been argued that even during the Cultural Revolution, the largest negative impact turned out to be on children with parents of lower educational achievement and occupational status. Likewise, during the reform period, education has increasingly favoured the most advantaged members of society, with the male children of well-educated high-ranked cadres and professionals in large cities coming out on top.

Analyses of rural China have similarly shown that the class-based biases of the Cultural Revolution did not last long enough to change the fact that people from higher ‘class status’ (chengfen) and their children would continue to out-educate those below them. Other research points to weaknesses in the rural education system from early childhood onwards, which keep poor rural and migrant children ‘behind before they begin’.

All of these points are confirmed in our regressions, which include father’s educational attainment in the set of explanatory variables. We find, for example, that having a father who completed senior high school or above is associated with an additional 3.2 years of education, and that this association is stronger in rural China (at 3.3 years) than in urban China (2.6 years). In separate regressions that look at each cohort, we find a diminishing (but not vanishing) relationship between child-parent educational outcomes for those cohorts most impacted by the Cultural Revolution, while we see rising persistence over much of the reform period, in both urban and rural areas.

We also find that there are educational rewards for having parents with Communist Party membership, while there are penalties for being female, having siblings, and belonging to an ethnic minority. Furthermore, both these rewards and penalties tend to be higher in the rural sample.

None of this is good news for rural-urban inequality in educational outcomes. But even more importantly, our analysis confirms a serious and growing problem of inequality in educational opportunities. A surging international literature on ‘equality of opportunity’ attempts to measure the share of inequality in any given economic outcome (i.e., years of schooling here) that can be attributed to ‘circumstances’ that are beyond the control of an individual, as opposed to ‘effort’. In our analysis, it is clear that the worst ‘circumstances’ you can be born into are to be female in a large, poor, rural family with uneducated parents of non-Han ethnicity. And the impact of these circumstances on educational outcomes is getting worse over time, not better.

These different circumstances are likely to widen the education gap between rural and urban China over time, unless government policies can effectively target the least favoured members of society. While this may seem an entirely obvious conclusion to draw, it has not always been heeded the past – the most obviously failure being the educational policies of the Cultural Revolution, which targeted those previously most favoured instead. This is not something anyone in their right mind would support today (nor was it then).

Even more worrying are the signs that the Chinese government may not be heeding it now either. In 2012, this was seen in the protests of several young women in Beijing and Guangzhou over the rising trend of gender quotas and gender-based university admissions, for which girls need higher scores than boys. These were subsequently deemed to be in ‘the national interest’ by the Education Minisitry, earning it (quite reasonably) a ‘zero score for fairness’ by the protesting women. The introduction of new rules in Beijing this year, which are forcing rural migrants to return to their home villages to complete their schooling, also tilts the playing field in favour of those traditionally blessed by circumstance. With policies like these, equal opportunities for educational advancement across the country and a narrowing of the persistent gap in rural-urban outcomes, will remain a long way off.

Dr Jane Golley is an Associate Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU. Image credit: CC by Micah Sittig/Flickr.