Elitism and Equality in Chinese Higher Education : Studies of Student Socio-economic Background, Investment in Education, and Career Aspirations

Sammanfattning: The purpose of this study is to present an empirical pattern of social equity in Chinese higher education by investigating university students. Student socio-economic background influences access to, and socio-economic conditions in, higher education, and this, in turn, influences student career aspirations. The theoretical background of the study is interdisciplinary and a conceptual framework built on theories and previous research is used to analyse Chinese higher education in a historical, social and economic context. A questionnaire survey was administered at six public universities in the Southwest region of the country to explore students’ socio-economic background, costs and how they finance their studies, as well as their future career aspirations. The relationships between the factors investigated were examined using factor analytical techniques and linear structural relations (LISREL) analysis. The findings indicate that the students come from all socio-economic strata but a disproportionately large number are from high-income families. Students from urban areas are over-represented while rural girls are significantly under-represented. Although the gap between the lowest and highest study costs is enormous, the findings confirm that the average cost of higher education in China far exceeds the average annual income, even for urban residents. Moreover, about one-third of students and their families utilised financial resources other than family such as student loans, borrowing, and other forms of financial assistance. A structural model linking student socio-economic background, enrolment in elite institutions, costs and means of financing education with career aspirations is developed and tested in three stages in order to shed light on the conceptual framework and to present a pattern of social equity. The results show that family socio-economic status has only a modest impact on student access to and in higher education. On the other hand, having social origins in a well-developed community exerts an influential effect. Although study and living costs, and means of financing studies, are influenced by student socio-economic background, they intend to have positive impacts on student career aspirations. While enrolment in elite institutions has a strongly positive impact on costs, it has a moderately negative impact on aspirations to pursue advanced degrees. In conclusion, the study finds that the patterns of socio-economic factors influencing student upward mobility in present-day China are different from those of ancient China and from those previous Communist leaders attempted to achieve only 20 years ago.