The right education matters more than ever in 21st century China. A first-rate education is seen not only as a gateway to personal and professional success, but as a status symbol among the country’s new rich. Parents rich and poor are willing to pay the price for it, both in personal sacrifice and in Renminbi. This article looks at the real – and rising – cost of an education in China.
Photo: Renato Ganoza
China’s universities first began tentatively charging tuition fees in 1997. Since then, these fees have not only become par for the course but also increased with every passing year. Added to the bribes that many institutions – from kindergarten to university level – still accept despite Xi Jinping’s government’s highly publicized anti-corruption campaign, this makes for an exorbitantly priced education.
How far do parents go to secure places for their children in China’s top schools? What role does status play in the education race, both at home and abroad? And what does the rise of Western schools mean for Chinese education?
China now produces more than 8 million university graduates a year, leaping ahead of developed nations in the West. The road to that figure is long and expensive, and the pay-off isn’t always there in a job market that’s feeling the pinch of a shrinking – albeit in very relative terms – economy.
For many families more than half of their annual income goes towards tuition fees and living costs for children away at college. The pressure on these students is, by Western standards, almost unthinkable: parents who have toiled for years, often after migrating to new towns and cities to earn higher salaries, forgoing time off work or trips home, expect their only child to support them in their old age.
A tentative framework for a social security system is being tested in China, but it is still far from the social welfare programs in other countries. Educating a child is an investment not only for the child’s future, but for the whole family – and the pressure starts long before university is even on the horizon.
While their parents toil away, children are far from idle. From a very young age, the majority of children are up at dawn and in school by 7am. Once the school day finishes, between 4pm and 6pm, they are shuttled off to private (read: paid) after-school classes to continue studying until 8pm or 9pm. This pattern is set in place and rigorously maintained with all eyes on the all-important gaokao, China’s state university entrance exam.
The money needed to ensure students’ success is less of an issue for affluent families in showcase cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but much more of a burden for those in poorer rural areas. Education touches at the heart of social and cultural issues in China: social mobility can only be afforded through education – and increasingly, only affluent city-dwellers have access to good schooling. This creates a vicious cycle of extreme debt among the country’s rural poor, who continue to bet everything on their children’s education.
The School Con
Necessity is the main factor that seems to be driving the race for education in China, especially for the less fortunate. Status also plays a role. A good education is not just a means for the whole family to thrive; it is also a status symbol, particularly when it comes to international schools. Much like the TEFL industry in most of Southeast Asia, these schools are managed according to market needs, instead of being held to a unified standard of education.
City Vs Country
As with every facet of life in the Asian giant, the gap between city and countryside dwellers is deep and wide when it comes to education in China. Education is more costly in the cities, but proportionally eats up much more of the family income in the countryside: a third of a family’s annual income in the city versus almost half in rural areas.
Factor in an overseas university education and the figures soar – a Bachelor’s Degree in a foreign country can cost a family three to four years of annual income. What’s more worrying is that these overseas degrees do not seem to give graduates a more competitive edge when they come back to China to seek employment. The return on investment can be negligible.
In a recent Financial Times article, Zong Qinghou, China’s second-richest man, who sent his only daughter Zong Fuli to study overseas, was quoted as saying, “[My daughter] knows neither the current situation for Chinese enterprises nor the situation abroad”. Graduates from foreign universities, aptly nicknamed “haigui” or “sea turtles”, are said to have one foot on land, one foot at sea: caught in the middle.
Added to this is the fact that not all foreign universities are created equal. There are vast differences between Ivy League schools and community colleges in the USA, for example. However, many Chinese parents are not aware of this, seeing a foreign diploma as superior across the board. Many agencies that facilitate entry into schools abroad for Chinese students therefore take advantage, charging the same hefty prices (up to USD 30,000) for no-name degree mill schools as legitimate institutions.
Increasingly, it is not just the privileged few sending their children overseas. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families. Paradoxically, because of the huge number of fresh graduates, jobs are scarce, and the top spots go to those educated at the best universities.
Again, due to the cost of exam preparation tests (including SATs for those bound for the USA, and TOEFL or IELTS to certify proficiency in English), only children of affluent families usually bag the best jobs. Graduates from more humble backgrounds, those who need a good job the most, will have a much harder time finding a position with a decent salary. The cycle continues.
A foreign education represents a significant investment for all but the Chinese super-rich. But bribes also drive up the price of schooling, even before it’s time to send Xiaoming off to college. The tuition fees for elite private kindergartens, often bilingual or English-speaking, are generally far too costly for middle-class families. The situation is worsened by the fact that the extreme competition that exists between parents makes bribery the most straightforward option. There's also the ubiquitous guanxi (connections): the weaker the connection, the more onerous the bribe.
Sources have reported on bribes of up to RMB 3 million for a place at an international kindergarten. In other cases, to drive up a middle school student’s GPA and make attending a better high school possible, additional points can be added to the student’s transcripts – but at USD 4,000 a point, it isn’t cheap. On paper, these bribes are described as voluntary “donations”, a creative appellation to ensure the money keeps coming in.
Education in China is a window into the social dynamics of the country, its profound divisions and the distance it still has to go before equality catches up to its staggering economic expansion. As always, the working classes pay a higher price, both in money and in personal struggle, to push their children out of poverty and up the social ladder, degree in hand.
The question is how long will the situation continue to simmer before it implodes? As the economy slows, will Chinese parents continue to keep their children’s noses to the grindstone in hope of a prestigious job that may never materialize? Education, the great equalizer, hasn’t quite made the grade in modern-day China – yet.
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Keywords: education in China cost of education in China
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The biggest problem is with the parents who unwittingly listen to all the gossip with their own mahjong groups, high tea sessions and neighbors. Each want their son/daughter to be better than their peers. Recruiters play a big part as well, telling parents AP is better than A levels (if they knew that kids are on a A level program) and vice versa - the ultimate ploy to get the kids to transfer to another school where commissions are paid on student recruitment. Of course, the recruiter also gets a handy payout from parents who were sold on the idea. Once in school, they go through a 3 year program squeezed into one year - all based on making the mark to get into certain universities in the west. In the unis, Chinese English teachers teach Chinglish and that's what you get - kids who can't hold a simple conversation such as giving directions. English is taught as a subject that they must pass in order to get out there. TOEFL or IELTS results are always in the top end which means they are proficient but when they do finally go to the uni of their choice, they can't even read. What's the real cost? It's half baked kids being sent overseas to top unis. Unis accept them because they need the money. So it's a vicious cycle. At the end of the day, money speaks. Forget education. Just make sure you have money.
Jun 09, 2014 01:11 Report Abuse
I am shocked by the fact you can openly buy points for the score. I understand that the rich kids are busy with going to KTV's and driving sports cars and I do feel for them but this idea will only damage China's long term competitiveness on a global scale.
Jun 09, 2014 08:18 Report Abuse
China is dreaming if it thinks its education is of any influence to SOCIAL MOBILITY. especially if education is bogus and based on bribes. then, with the degree the family could afford, the child gets a job as high up the ladder as was financially achievable. evaluation by degree/finances rather than skill or ability. that's not socially mobile. and for the record: foreign universities ARE superior across the board, because there is a chance to fail if you dont study well. it's very chinese to rightly call attention to parents' poor understanding of education, but then deflect the conclusion into blaming foreign universities for cheating them. chinese parents are smart enough to draw a correct conclusion out ofthe silly VIP-hierarchy games that mianzi-zombies play with each other here. it matters little if they don't know that the true benefits of foreign education are independence, confidence, creativity and logical reasoning. as long as their child reaps the benefits, the "why" becomes irrelevant. stop trying to use half-truths to convince people to buy into chinese education!
Jun 09, 2014 10:18 Report Abuse
Uh...hardly any of the millions of Chinese entering elite Western unis can even speak passable English...yet, they are allowed to enter the hallowed halls of the West, and they are equally allowed to exit clutching a degree bestowed on them somewhat mysteriously taking into account that when they get back here in China years later minus millions of RMBs, they can still hardly utter an intelligent word in the Anglo vernacular??? Are standards thus really that high in the West?? Doesn't really seem like that...and it DOES seem that corruption plays more than just a passing role...specially now that the West is bankrupt everywhere...
Mar 13, 2015 00:51 Report Abuse
If this article is accurate (and I'm not insinuating that it isn't: I just have no way to independently verify it), it paints a disturbing picture. I have heard about this almost feverish education drive that many Chinese parents "inflict" on their children. But it also reminds me of another country that is renowned for this. I'm thinking the USA, where parents will "prostitute" themselves financially so that their kids can go to University. If this article is on the money, it sounds like the Chinese ARE in a worse position (both financially and philosophically) than the Americans in this regard, but having been in the American education system as a student myself for 3 years, I'd say the gulf between the two sets of collective parents (the bribes notwithstanding - but who knows the truth of this in the USA?) is not as great as some would like it to be...
Jun 11, 2014 14:13 Report Abuse
One of my Chinese students got into a well-known university in my hometown. It made my blood boil because I flunked him. He didn't pass my business courses. He showed up for the tests only, the papers he handed in were 95% plagiarized and he would copy the homework from one of the other girls in class. I couldn't, with an honest heart, pass him. But, wow the grades that were submitted to the university weren't the grades I submitted. Truth be told, my grading was "double marked." Man, the universities in the West need to wake the f*ck up and realize that grades are purchased in China. If it's one thing that the west has as a competitive advantage over China, it's the quality higher education. I heard the dumbass director of education at the USA consulate speak to an audience in China. He had a nice little powerpoint presentation with the average test scores of students in Shanghai (the best in the world according to his ppt). WTF! I'm not buying into their silly statistics, because it's bogus! Those test scores were sold! But I bet China is so proud to claim that façade. And they're secretly laughing that the consulate reps are buying into it! I wanted to stop the director mid speech and tell him that he has no idea what's going on at the ground level here.
Jun 15, 2014 00:59 Report Abuse
Thanks for sharing. You are in the perfect spot to do something about it. The remaining question is, what are you going to do about it? Don't underestimate the power of an email sent from the right person, c.c. the relevant parties. And getting email addresses of specific individuals from official websites is dead easy these days.
Jun 15, 2014 09:48 Report Abuse
Easier said than done my friend. Famous quote from the movie Training Day, "It's not what you know, it's what you can prove." Trust me, I talked it over with multiple people and they all concur that there's nothing really I can do about it, either at the school I was working for or the university. I'm hoping that he gets hit with the hard truth: Compared to China, it may be easier to get into a US university but it's harder to pass in university. Natural consequences will have to suffice in this situation. First time he gets caught plagiarizing will result in academic suspension (exception a lot of unis give to Chinese students), second time, he's on a plane back to mom and dad because he can't stay in the USA on a student visa and not go to school. That's the warning I told all of my students to try and deter them from attempting to copy or cheat.
Jun 16, 2014 09:26 Report Abuse
Talking to people isn't very effective as you have found out my friend. The power of the pen is mightier in this case. To get results you need to put it on paper (i.e. email) and send it out to the right people, defined as the people with the authority (the higher the better) to make changes, such as heads of universities and embassies. The "secret" is to cc as many people as possible. Imagine you received an email directed to you, and cc a whole bunch of key people that may or may not know you, meaning not only you but a whole bunch of people not only now knew about it, but also knew YOU knew about it, wouldn't you think twice before choosing the do-nothing option? Group dynamics and intelligence are what you are relying on. Someone is bound to come up with some kind of solutions. I have seen key policies enacted as a result of just one email from a person who spoke the truth. (Actually, you can attach the link to this article to your email. The commenters above have already given you great support through their testimonies). Don't give up.
Jun 16, 2014 10:33 Report Abuse
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