The Rural Poor Are Shut Out of China's Top Schools

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As China tries to graduate from the world’s factory to a nation with a strong middle class, its peasants still aren’t ready to make the leap. According to official statistics, China’s urban-rural income gap reached 3.33:1 in 2009, the widest since 1978, if not before. And as the gap increases, poor peasants are becoming marginalized in higher education, closing off one of their best opportunities for advancement. The trend is particularly alarming in Tsinghua and Peking universities, known as China’s MIT and Harvard respectively for their places atop China’s academic totem pole.

Students enrolling in those schools (both of which have some 30,000 students total) this September will find themselves in the overwhelming company of their urban peers. The most recent statistics published by China’s state-owned media showed that of China’s top two schools, Peking University had a rural population of 16.3 percent in 1999 (down from 50 percent to 60 percent in the 1950s), while Tsinghua University had a rural population of 17.6 percent in 2000. Both figures are from the most recent years in which any sort of dependable data have been published; experts and students alike agree that the numbers have shrunk even further since then. Pan Wei, a professor at the school of international studies at PKU, told the blog The China Beat that the number might be as low as 1 percent—a shocking statistic considering that more than half of China’s population is rural. “We can hardly find anyone here with a rural household registration,” Pan told NEWSWEEK. Media-relations officers at both schools did not answer calls for comment.

Across China, peasants make up 56 percent of the college-age population but only 50 percent of university students, mostly concentrated in China’s vocational schools or less prestigious universities. Yet the very top schools are the most skewed toward city residents. Why can’t peasants make it into elite universities? “Every rural area in China, including the outskirts of Beijing, lacks the educational resources of urban areas,” says Liu Hong, executive director of Peer China, a nonprofit organization that focuses on bringing educational equality to Chinese secondary schools.

Traditionally, entrance to a university depended solely on an applicant’s score on a standardized test, called the Gaokao. But over the last five years or so, “China went into a different system that relied less on the Gaokao and started to allow for more monkeying with the system,” says James Z. Lee, dean of humanities and social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “If you’re fluent in French, you have a better chance of getting into a good university in China; that used to not be the case.” In other words, Chinese schools are copying Western ones that consider applicants in a more holistic way as they try to nurture well-rounded individuals instead of ace test takers. Yet, Liu says, “focusing on individuals widens the gap between urban and rural, because teachers in rural areas” can’t offer their students nearly as well-rounded an education as their urban counterparts can.

The problems with peasant education are manifest. Farming villages aren’t great places to live, so they have a tough time attracting good teachers. In the experience of one educational NGO worker who works in rural China and asked to remain anonymous because of a company policy not to criticize China to the media, “Many teachers in rural areas who have college degrees actually only have them from continuing-education programs, which don’t really provide an education.” The aid worker described visiting rural schools and asking principals how many of their teachers have been to university: “The principals will say 100 percent, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll find out that something like 20 percent have gone to university and the remaining 80 percent have degrees from these short-term programs.” Unsurprisingly, English-language teaching is especially bad. Although it’s required, Liu points out, “the middle-school English education is next to nothing; even the best students will have to have thorough remedial work in catch-up English.”

What’s more, as wages continue to rise, the opportunity cost for peasants to leave high school and enter the work force skyrockets. Good high schools can cost $3,000 for three years, and a high-school-age laborer can earn $150 a month; that’s a cost differential of about $8,400—a fortune for poor peasant families.

Public health is another part of the problem that affects the poorer half of peasants, who make up about 28 percent of China’s college-eligible population. Scott Rozelle, codirector of the Rural Education Action Project at Stanford University, points to health problems, such as 40 percent anemia rates among poor and rural Chinese children—and the failure of the Ministry of Education to provide nutritious lunch programs. A spokesman for the ministry, asked about nutritious lunches, told NEWSWEEK to “get in touch directly with various schools in China, since China has so many schools and the conditions are different.”

A bureaucratic gap between the responsibilities of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education exacerbates the health problems of poor students. “There is not one school in a poor area that has a nurse, and there’s no budget for health exams,” says Rozelle. “We asked a thousand principals in poor schools the rate of anemia among their students, and 82 percent said, ‘What’s anemia?’ ” Anemia significantly drags down test results not only of students with the disease but also of their peers, because students with anemia tend to disrupt classroom learning.

An urbanite from Hebei province, Shi Shuo graduated from Tsinghua University in 2008 with a major in art design. “I think the number of peasant students definitely dropped in the four years I was there,” he says. “As resources become more and more concentrated into the hands of people with power and money, it’s more and more difficult for regular families to get into elite universities.” In the topsy-turvy Mao era, students carried their peasant background with pride, and elite universities were full of peasants. In a speech last year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao mused about how when he attended university “almost 80 percent, or even higher, of my classmates were from peasant villages.” Yet as China’s economy started growing in the late 1970s, and wealth became more and more concentrated in urban areas, poverty and agriculture became symbols of an impoverished, out-of-touch China that many of its urbanites are happy to have moved beyond. “I live in a dorm, and all of my roommates are from urban backgrounds,” says Li Xiao, a rising junior at PKU. Li says that of all the kids she knows at school, just three or five admitted to having rural backgrounds; maybe more came from the country “but they’re ashamed to speak about it.”

China’s education system, where peasants can get a rudimentary education before populating thousands of factories along its eastern coast, suited it when the country sought to be the world’s sweatshop. “At the same level of development in their history, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. had practically full enrollments in high school,” says Rozelle. By contrast, only 60 percent to 70 percent of China’s current high-school-age students are in high school. Yet factory jobs will continue to migrate to places like India. Wages in China will continue to rise. And as long as China finds no better way to educate its rural poor, it’s staring down a future with a 100 million-strong underclass.