Tackling rural-urban inequalities through educational mobilities: rural-origin Chinese academics from impoverished backgrounds navigating higher education

Research Highlighted:

Xu, C. L. (2020). Tackling rural-urban inequalities through educational mobilities: Rural-origin Chinese academics from impoverished backgrounds navigating higher education. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 4(2), 179-202. doi:10.1080/23322969.2020.1783697

To watch a lecture given by Dr Xu to undergraduate students at Shantou University, China based on this paper, visit here.


Dr Cora Lingling Xu, Durham University, UK

Existing scholarship on marginalised academics is mostly western-based and concerned with inequalities caused by class, gender and/or racial and ethnic differences. This article adds to this literature by highlighting how inequalities caused by the urban-rural divide in China adversely impact on the academic trajectories of rural-origin academics from impoverished backgrounds. To mitigate such inequalities, the 26 interviewed academics drew on their academic capital to achieve institutional and geographic mobilities, both within and beyond China. Such educational mobilities further allowed these scholars to convert into and accumulate economic, social, cultural and symbolic capitals (after Bourdieu). Importantly, their rural-origins and disadvantaged positioning had cultivated in them a productive habitus that is characterised by hard work, perseverance and self-discipline. Such a habitus played a pivotal role in orchestrating their academic ascension and upward social mobility. However, despite these successes, this article also reveals these academics’ perennial financial struggles in lifting their rural-based families out of poverty, and the exclusive nature of educational mobilities, which are manifestations of systemic structural inequalities caused by urban-biased policies.


Extant literature on marginalised or ‘non-traditional’ appointees in academia has been mostly western-based and is primarily understood through the lenses of class, gender, race/ethnicity. Such literature critiques the normalisation of the white male middle-class experiences and perspectives and the marginalisation of those represented by the working-class, the women and the racial and ethnic minorities in the West.

Little, however, is known about how marginalised groups in non-Western contexts struggle against inequalities. In this article, I evoke of the lived experiences of Chinese academics from rural and impoverished backgrounds as an attempt to redress this gap. This is against the background of trenchant rural-urban inequalities within China, as exacerbated by the country’s household registration system called Hukou. This unequal system orchestrates a set of policies that gives preferential treatments to urban populations in quality education, housing and health care, over their rural-origin counterparts. In the higher education sphere, rural-origin students are constantly found to be severely disadvantaged in access to elite higher education institutions (HEIs), due to unfair quota systems and a lack of requisite social, cultural and economic resources to navigate the university choice system. As a result, a disproportionate number of rural-origin students cluster in less-prestigious, second/third-tiered HEIs.

While there is an emerging body of literature that has examined the experiences of rural students who have made it to elite HEIs in China, there is almost no research that has paid attention to the majority of rural students who end up in non-elite institutions. Even less attention has been paid to those rural-origin individuals who have not only survived non-elite undergraduate education, but have gone on to pursue postgraduate studies and successfully become faculty members.

Indeed, rural-origin academics have been severely under-represented in China’s academia. Yan’s (2017) 2011 survey found that only 0.41 per cent of HE academic staff are from families with fathers working as farmers and in poultry cultivation industries. Given that most academics currently working in China were born between the 1960s and 1990s, a period during which China’s rural population accounted for over 70% of its entire population (The World Bank 2018), such an under-representation of academics from rural and impoverished backgrounds demands more explanation and research.

Research Question

In view of the above gaps in literature, I focus on the experiences of 26 rural-origin academics who not only finished their first degrees but excelled in postgraduate studies and managed to get permanent positions in academia. Over two-thirds of these participants entered non-elite Chinese HEIs for undergraduate studies. I will seek to address this research question: What are their academic experiences like as individuals from rural and impoverished backgrounds and what strategies have they used to tackle structural barriers in progressing their career?

Theoretical Framework

Theoretically, building on existing scholarship’s fruitful engagement with Bourdieusian notions of habitus and capital, this article employs habitus to depict how experiences of growing up in impoverished rural environments, which are ‘disfavoured locations’ in China (Liu 1997, 105), has inclined these rural-origin academics to dispositions of hard work, discipline, and perseverance, attributes that were essential to the success of their graduate studies and scholarly work. Such habitus was also characterised by an acute sense of understanding about the unequal and differentiated access to resources and sociocultural advantages across different locations and institutions of China. This had further motivated a strong desire and determination to get out and move up through scholarly ascensions.

As such, this article underlines how the rural-urban divide in China has pre-disposed a perpetually precarious economic position for these rural-origin academics, and how this had instilled in them a desperate desire to not only uplift themselves but also support their rural-based families out of poverty. Otherwise capital-deprived, these rural-origin scholars drew on their self-generated and accumulated academic capital, diligence and stoicism (habitus) to achieve institutional mobilities in tandem with geographic mobilities (including inter-city/provincial and cross-border mobilities). Such education mobilities further enabled them to acquire and convert economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital, which became pivotal in improving their positions in the academic labour market.

Policy implications

Drawing on the major findings of this study, I argue that there are three aspects of implications for policymakers in China. First, as institutional mobilities from undergraduate to postgraduate stages are critical for rural-origin students to achieve upward social mobility and reach academic ascensions, it is advisable for both national and local governments to allocate resources for better supporting rural-origin students’ applications for postgraduate degrees, especially to elite institutions. Such resources could take material forms, such as monetary support for exam preparation and attendance (e.g. joining oral exams and interviews); these resources could also manifest in inter-personal forms, including the setting up of a mentoring system in these students’ home and target HEIs – within this system, potential supervisors and current postgraduate students can provide academic guidance and support to help these rural-origin students navigate the pivotal step of getting accepted into higher-tired HEIs’ postgraduate programmes. Meanwhile, during postgraduate admission processes, elite HEIs could devise positive discrimination policies towards rural-origin students (especially those from lower-tiered undergraduate institutions) to increase their likelihood of accessing prestigious postgraduate programmes.

Secondly, considering the noted nepotist practices during academic hiring and these rural-origin scholars’ detestation of such practices both from the accounts of participants in this study and in the literature (Yan 2017), it might be worth considering the instituting of mechanisms against nepotism during such academic hiring processes. One way is to publicise clear recruitment criteria and establish an independent channel for complaints of and investigations into malpractices during academic hiring.

Thirdly, given that urban areas’ high property prices have placed an exponential economic burden on the shoulders of rural-origin scholars from impoverished backgrounds, it might be worthwhile for national and local governments, as well as HEIs, to provide means-tested staff housing to early-career rural-origin academics. Moreover, considering these rural-origin academics’ need to assist their largely rural-based families, zero-interest loans could be made available to help them deal with contingent economic demands.

These three suggestions are not meant to be exhaustive, but instead, intended as an indication of how more rural-friendly policies could be facilitated to ensure greater equity and social justice for rural-origin individuals from impoverished backgrounds. This can be relevant to non-Western contexts where rural-urban disparity looms large, such as countries in Africa and South America.

Author Bio

Dr Cora Lingling Xu (PhD, Cambridge, FHEA) is Assistant Professor at Durham University, UK. She is an editorial board member of British Journal of Sociology of Education, Cambridge Journal of Education and International Studies in Sociology of Education. In 2017, Cora founded the Network for Research into Chinese Education Mobilities. Cora has published in international peer-reviewed journals, including British Journal of Sociology of Education, The Sociological Review, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Review of Education, European Educational Research Journal and Journal of Current Chinese Affairs. Her research interests include Bourdieu’s theory of practice, sociology of time, rural-urban inequalities, ethnicity, education mobilities and inequalities and China studies. She can be reached at lingling.xu@durham.ac.uk, and via Twitter @CoraLinglingXu. Download her publications here.

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