Trends in educational mobility: How does China compare to Europe and the United States?

Gruijters, R. J., Chan, T. W., & Ermisch, J. (2019). Trends in educational mobility: How does China compare to Europe and the United States? Chinese Journal of Sociology


Dr Rob Gruijters  Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge


Despite an impressive rise in school enrolment rates over the past few decades, there are concerns about growing inequality of educational opportunity in China. In this article, we examine the level and trend of educational mobility in China, and compare them to the situation in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA. Educational mobility is defined as the association between parents’ and children’s educational attainment. We show that China’s economic boom has been accompanied by a large decline in relative educational mobility chances, as measured by odds ratios. To elaborate, relative rates of educational mobility in China were, by international standards, quite high for those who grew up under state socialism. For the most recent cohorts, however, educational mobility rates have dropped to levels that are comparable to those of European countries, although they are still higher than the US level.

While we observed stable mobility rates in Europe and the USA (e.g. persistent inequality), in the Chinese case, we observe a sustained increase in inequality of education outcomes. In the comparative literature on educational inequality, which now covers most of the industrialised world, such a finding is highly unusual, particularly during periods of robust economic growth and educational expansion (e.g. Blossfeld et al., 2016; Pfeffer, 2008). The reason for this finding should be sought in China’s recent history, that is, the transformation from a relatively egalitarian socialist system (1949–1978) to a highly unequal market system (1978–present). Previous studies confirm that advantaged groups have benefited disproportionately from the educational reforms and expansion that followed the market transition (Deng and Treiman, 1997; Zhou et al., 1998). We show that inequality increases even further for the ‘second market generation’, who came of age during the early 1990s, mirroring broader increases in socioeconomic inequality during this period (Xie and Zhou, 2014).

This finding, which is consistent with other recent research (Wu, 2010; Yeung, 2013), is probably due to a combination of factors. First, market-based educational reforms, such as the introduction of tuition fees for senior high school and college in the 1990s, increased the importance of parental resources for children’s educational success. In addition, increasing economic returns to education strengthened the correlation between parental education and other aspects of social origin (especially income) over time. Second, the decentralisation of educational funding in the 1980s increased regional disparities in the availability and quality of schools. As a result, children from rural and poorer backgrounds tended to leave the education system before they reached the more advanced educational stages. In addition, there has been long-standing discrimination against people with rural hukou. All these factors have led to a situation in which educational expansion at the tertiary level mainly benefits already privileged urban residents (Tam and Jiang, 2015). Any effort to counter the trend of rising educational inequality in China should, therefore, focus on reducing attrition and improving access to quality education in rural and less developed areas.

Bio: Rob Gruijters

I am a University Lecturer affiliated with the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Prior to joining Cambridge in September 2018, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Oxford and Berlin. I am a sociologist by training and have worked with the German Development Cooperation (GIZ) in Ghana before starting my Phd. My current research engages with the causes and consequences of the ‘global learning crisis’, with a focus on Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. I am also interested in the effect of China’s market transition on educational and economic inequality.

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