Many countries around the world commit themselves to providing their citizens with equal access to educational opportunities and an even distribution of education resources through different policies and measures. The policy initiated by China in the 1990s to expand college and university enrolment was intended to enable more citizens to gain access to higher education opportunities.
However, the development of higher education accompanied with an expansion policy also comes with potential issues such as increasing employment pressures, decreasing income levels and unpredicted satisfaction. Based on data from the China Labour-Force Dynamics Survey (or CLDS, launched by Sun Yat-Sen University), we analyse the impact of higher education massification policies on different graduate groups.
THE CHANGING INCOME GAP BETWEEN UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE, POLYTECHNIC AND VOCATIONAL SCHOOL GRADUATES
We observed that over the past two decades, the increase of salary-incomes of university and college graduates has been slower than those of polytechnic school, vocational high school, and technical school graduates, and the income satisfaction for the former is decreasing.
Before China’s massification policy took effect, the income gap between university/college graduates and polytechnic and vocational school graduates was substantial. When comparing the incomes of different graduate groups before the massification policy, incomes of graduates were significantly positively affected by their educational attainments.
This also reveals that the income gap would increase when workers reach senior positions. As the higher education system is rather new in China compared with developed economies, the returns to higher education, especially under the elite-oriented system, are quite substantial. With the massification policy implemented, returns to higher education have declined as compared with other income groups. The gap in salaries between university/college graduates and those of polytechnic and vocational school graduates, has been narrowing since The incomes of university graduates enrolled before 1999 when the massification policy was initiated were significantly higher than those of polytechnic and vocational school graduates of the same year; yet after 1999, the income gap has been shrinking. After 1999, though the incomes of college graduates were still higher than that of polytechnic and vocational school graduates of the same age, the difference was not substantial. It can be concluded that university and college graduates are facing a crisis of “diploma depreciation” to a certain extent.
More importantly, the massification policy has had a significant impact on income satisfaction. The income satisfaction of university/college and polytechnic graduates after massification has been decreasing, which indicates the complex influence of the massification policy over the income satisfaction of polytechnic graduates. Intriguingly, the income satisfaction of vocational school graduates enrolled after 1999 has been increasing, which may indicate a good match between vocational school graduates and the jobs they acquire. The income satisfaction of university graduates, college graduates and polytechnic graduates have all been decreasing over the years, so it appears that college graduates have suffered more.
A caveat is in order. Massification is not the only factor influencing the income satisfaction of graduates; working environment, work content and so on may also exert an impact on income satisfaction.
IMPACT ON JOB COMPETITIVENESS
The findings of our research show that the massification policy has had an impact on the job competitiveness of higher education graduates, which is caused by many factors. For example, the massification of higher education has reduced the admission standards of universities and colleges; therefore, the average quality of graduates is decreasing, and the average income growth rate of university/college graduates is slower than that of polytechnic, vocational school graduates. Another explanation is the changes in the labour market and employment structure. In the early 21st century, with the rapid development of China’s manufacturing industry, a large number of blue-collar workers were needed, most of whom graduated from polytechnic or vocational schools. In the meantime, the higher education sector expanded rapidly, and a large number of university/college graduates were produced by higher education, who found no corresponding positions. The imbalanced supply and demand in the market led to the salary decrease of university and college graduates, and their satisfaction with income dropped.
The massification policy aimed to increase university accessibility for citizens and promote an equal distribution of educational opportunities. However, the rapid expansion of higher education has affected the incomes and job satisfaction of university/college graduates to different degrees. In reality, the policy related to distributional equality aims to pursue quality in the first place instead of quantity; nonetheless, the Chinese higher education is moving towards pursuing quantity in university graduates. Therefore, the result of the massification policy is “low-level equality” rather than distributional equity and harmonious socio-economic development.
As far as government policy is concerned, it is suggested that while expanding the accessibility to higher education and providing equal educational opportunities, the government should guide higher education to be more targeted, professional and career oriented, strengthen vocational skill training, and increase the employment competitiveness of university/college graduates, so that educational resources can be fairly distributed and social equality realised. Besides, it is suggested that the government improve its employment policy and career services for university/college graduates. In line with the current strategy to increase employment opportunities, the government should, while improving the employment of university/college graduates, use policy tools to strike a balance between supply and demand in the labour market, and achieve good allocation of human resources overall. Moreover, the government could establish a long-term employment statistics system, so that employment data and information collected can help higher education decision-makers to make informed decisions.
As far as higher education institutions are concerned, while teaching the required courses of their students’ own majors, colleges and universities should widen the sphere of knowledge of their students and establish curricula according to the market demand. By doing so, the general quality of their students can be improved, and the flexibility and adaptability of students may be strengthened to better adjust to market changes. It is also suggested that universities and colleges provide their students with more channels for internships, which can better cultivate students’ capability to be more market-oriented. Universities and colleges should establish more applied learning curricula to improve the hands-on capabilities of their students.
Moreover, university-enterprise collaboration should be explored and enhanced, so that universities and colleges can better grasp the needs of enterprises for talents and professionals. At the same time, given the existing conditions, universities and colleges should provide as many opportunities for their students with more internships and in-house training, so that they can understand and experience different cultures of workplaces, and appreciate the needs of enterprises for different professionals. By doing so, the concept of “the massification of higher education” (gaoxiao kuozhao) can move towards “improving the quality of education” (jiaoyu tizhi), and, while strengthening all-round quality-oriented education, colleges and universities should educate and provide graduates both professional and practical skills needed for the burgeoning market economy.
Although the massification policy will bring more students into higher education, students from poor families may still be excluded. This is the case in China. Declining returns to education and the dissatisfaction with higher education may hinder personal motivation to pursue higher education. In particular, it will drive out students from poor family backgrounds as they need to carefully compare returns to higher education with investments. An unbridled development of higher education will lead to worsened equity and equality over the long run.
Therefore, the government and higher education institutions should attend to the negative impact of the massification policy.
This article is an abridgement of the full paper of the same title by the same authors, published in A. M. Wu and J. N. Hawkins (eds.) (2018), “Massification of Higher Education in Asia,” Higher Education in Asia: Quality, Excellence and Governance (Singapore: Springer).
Ye Lin is Professor at the Center for Chinese Public Administration Research, School of Government, Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU), Guangzhou, China.
ALFRED M. WU
Alfred M. Wu is Associate Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
Yang Xinhui is a graduate student at the School of Government, Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU), Guangzhou, China.