James Pitman, Managing Director UK and Europe, Study Group, addresses the barriers to inclusive higher education (HE) in China
In 2021, China’s government introduced the ‘double reduction’ education policy as part of the 14th Five- Year Plan. The measure calls for a reduction in both the amount of homework and extracurricular tutoring that pupils receive.
Although the policy’s stated purpose was intended to ease pressure on students to score highly on their end- of-school exam, the Gaokao – a move welcomed by many families struggling with escalating pressure on ambitious young people – it also reflects a wider societal pivot towards vocational training to respond to the needs of the Chinese economy.
This is not to say China and Chinese families are moving away from a focus on university degrees. Higher education remains a priority for both students and parents and in some ways, a focus on quality and the employment opportunities which follow, has only increased in recent years.
Applications from Chinese students to UK universities increased by 43%
China is home to a fifth of the world’s population and the numbers of young people moving at any one time into tertiary education is breath-taking when seen from other counties. As a result, it cannot be overstated just how competitive domestic higher education is in China.
Despite achieving good Gaokao grades, many students are unable to progress into the best universities at home. This means a high volume will leave to study at top institutions abroad, an option seen by many families as preferable to enrolment at a less reputable Chinese university. Some students simply choose to go abroad anyway, keen to expand their understanding of the world (reflected in the unrelenting demand for western inclusive higher education. UCAS data shows applications from Chinese students to UK universities increased by 43% between 2019 and 2021).
However, this route has been thrown into disarray by delays to examinations at IELTS testing centres and the ‘living with’ approach the UK is now taking to the pandemic, which is at odds with China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy. And away from the UK, other popular international education destinations simply closed their borders.
An inclusive higher education environment
So, what next for Chinese students looking at their university study options? Even though international education routes have reopened, there are still obvious issues to overcome. For example, it is extremely difficult for lower income Chinese families to send their children abroad due to high travel costs. In many areas of rural China, the high school enrolment rate is lower than 40% and, even when students score highly on the Gaokao, moving to a tier one city like Shanghai or Guangzhou, can be prohibitively expensive.
Also, the ‘double reduction’ plan only extends to vocational schools and the financial hardship faced by poorer families in third- to fifth-tier cities who wish to send their children to traditional universities continues to be a challenge for those able students and policy makers alike.
While we have no influence over domestic Chinese educational concerns and challenges (many of which are in some form increasingly familiar as we also grapple with the ballooning cost of student loans and calls for greater parity for vocational education routes), we still have an important role to play in meeting the needs and aspirations of all students in ways the Chinese government describes as ‘win-win cooperation’.
Western institutions need to continue to develop blended learning and online course content to allow greater flexibility for Chinese students keen to study and minimise costs, while maintaining the quality students and regulators rightly expect.
The familiar requirement to study an entire course overseas might also be reviewed. Satellite campuses in China offering support through the initial semesters of a degree could also help students, giving them the opportunity to work towards an international degree locally, before travelling to the host country to complete their studies.
The hybrid and flexible approach for students
Our recent report on the region notes the ‘HyFlex’ – hybrid and flexible – approach is proving particularly popular. This arrangement enables students to enrol on an international degree course that is partially conducted online. It benefits those who still desire an in-person, overseas experience, but whose families may not have the means to send them abroad for three to four years. Additionally, it guarantees that students can continue learning in the event of further lockdowns, such as the one recently faced in Shanghai.
In addition to blended learning and HyFlex, higher education sectors around the world should work to address the financial obstacles faced by overseas students, especially those caused by extenuating pandemic circumstances. For example, we note that UK universities offered incentives for Chinese students to enrol, including entry requirement and financial flexibility: reduced fees for students studying remotely for a year before completing their degree in-country.
The demand for inclusive higher education amongst Chinese families remains strong, but current inequities inhibit full participation and the chance for students to fulfil their potential. A combination of domestic action, transnational education and blended learning will help develop a culture of inclusivity for all young people in the region.