Understanding Educational Inequalities in a Transitional Era: The Surging Role of Culture Practice in Chinese Sociology of Education

Ailei Xie

Dr Ailei XIE, Guangzhou University, China

Research highlighted

Xie, Ailei, Kuang, Huan, Hong, Yanbi, and Liu Qunqun.(2018a) . Integrated cultural capital investment and social adjustment of urban and rural students in elite universities (in Chinese). Higher Education Research39(9), 30-36.

Xie, Ailei, Kuang, Huan, Hong, Yanbi, and Postiglione, Gerard A (2018b). Cultural capital deficiency as challenges: rural students in Elite universities (in Chinese). Peking University Education Review, 16(4), 45-64.

Xie, Ailei.(2016) . Rural Students in China’ Elite University: Social Mobility and Habitus Transformation” (in Chinese). Education Research16(4), 74-81.


In less than 40 years, China has become the world’s second largest economy. Encouraged by the link between schooling and a modern state, tremendous efforts have been made by the Chinese government to expand its school system. The higher education sector, for example, experienced an unprecedented growth since the end of the 1990s. The number of students has increased from less than 0.86 million in 1978, when the socialist country tried to reopen it to the outside world, to more than 27.53 million in 2017 (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2017). With its increasing capacity to serve more students, a key question is whether the education system has become more equal (Xie 2015a, 2015b). The literature produced in recent years suggest a patterned school success. While urban students still outperformed their counterparts from rural areas in term of access to quality schooling and universities, the changing fabric of the social structure gradually left those students with a lower socioeconomic status far behind (Postiglione 2015). In other words, the rural-urban gap is still there, and the rising socioeconomic differences among people are having their imprint on Chinese education system. The education opportunity structure is still changing but becomes increasingly clear, leaving more questions on how the new education opportunity structure becomes possible.

The market transition brings back the issue of capital and its role in social competition for privileges in education (Postiglione, 2015). Yet, the picture depicted by the literature is still unclear, which reveals the complexities in understanding a society that is in constant transformation. For example, economic capital is an important predictor for admission into first-tier universities. Yet, controlling the influence of family residence, father’s occupation as well as level of education, students from high income families are less likely than their counterparts from middle- and low-income families to gain access to higher education institutions (Chen 2015). Social capital helps for school success (Xie & Postiglione 2016; Xie 2016a). Yet, it works only partially for employment upon university graduation (Lai, Meng & Su 2012). Cultural capital helps in middle schools, but does not work out in universities, for academic performance (Zhu 2018). The complex picture of the roles played by varied forms of capital highlights the importance of understanding the social and cultural context by applying the concept capital developed in western contexts.

My publications over the past two years are inspired by the work of Bourdieu on cultural capital. The data used in each of the publications is from a mixed-methods ongoing longitudinal study of students at four elite, research intensive, public Project 985 universities (The Study of Elite Universities Student Experience, SEUSE) in China. The concept cultural capital itself has the potential to demystify the privileges in education that certain social groups (for example, the urban and middle class) have. As a new structure is arising, the ways those privileged social groups have in passing their advantages to their children are becoming more sophisticated. Yet, a misuse of it may tend to imply that the Chinese social structure is static, and a dominant culture have already gained its arbitrariness. Under such circumstances, some may assume that assimilation to mainstream culture can mean privileges, while rebellion can entail failures in schools. Yet, this is questionable. My paper published in Higher Education Research (Xie 2018a), for example, suggests a mixed practice in cultural capital investment, which I conceptualize as integrated cultural capital strategy. It suggests that the cultural practices of middle-class families in cities provide their children with advantages in social success in elite universities. Furthermore, their cultural practice is featured by their investment in both highbrow cultural activities participation (for example, visiting art museums, attending classical concerts and visiting theater plays) as well as trainings in helping children to gain such skills as singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. The trainings demonstrate a preference to low-brow cultural consumption. Yet, this, by no means, suggests a cultural omnivore among the emerging largest middle-class group (Sintas & Álvarez, 2002). Rather, it arises from the intensive status competitions among middle class parents who are influenced heavily by a neo-liberal discourse on individual responsibilities for their own success (Ball 2003). While there is not a clear pattern of dominant culture practice, anxious middle-class parents in cities tend to invest on anything that they think might bring privileges to their children. And, these cultural capital strategies are successfully translated into their children’s social success in elite universities. Rural students are left far behind in terms of social success, with their chances of being appointed/selected as leaders of important students’ bodies remaining low (Xie, 2018a).

Gaining insights from Lareau’s tradition in interpreting cultural capital as family strategies that align with schools’ institutional rewards, my paper in Peking University Education Review examines how the above-mentioned cultural practices bring privileges to urban students in China’s most elite universities (Xie 2018b). While the paper published on Higher Education Research is based on the quantitative data collected in SEUSE, this paper is based on both the quantitative and qualitative data. What the data analysis suggests is that the integrated cultural capital strategy is translated into urban students’ privileges in social success in two ways. First, it cultivates a sense of belongings and entitlement to elite universities among urban middle-class students. Second and more importantly, it helps them to build the confidence to succeed, a mixed effect of both highbrow cultural activities’ participation and long-term training in cultural skills. For those students from rural background, they could barely understand the importance of the social aspects of their university life upon coming to the elite milieu. What is even worse is that they feel “being socially incompetent”, a feeling caused by the lack of family investment in trainings of cultural skills in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments (Xie, 2018b).

What I suggest is that these micro-level analyses could not be fully understood without a knowledge on the macro-level changes. In a fast-changing society with a more dynamic social structure, different social groups are competing for the cultural hegemony by empowering their own cultural tastes, dispositions and practice into a more senior position. The anxious urban middle-class families are, to some extent, successful in imposing their values onto the whole society, including those vulnerable social groups from the rural communities. Their integrated social capital strategy is also rewarded by China’s elite universities. Yet, the strategy itself is still ambivalent, featured for its nature of half-breed between highbrow culture and lowbrow culture participations, reflecting a fierce status competition among the newly-made middle class families and the fear of falling from their privileged places. The new boundary setting up by the urban middle class shows another face of the rapid-changing Chinese society, and the gradual solidification of the social structure. Investment in cultural practices that is still unclear in its fabrics and has not yet fully gained its hegemony in the society demands not only tremendous efforts but also entails high risks for individuals. It produces new barriers for social groups that have long been marginalized.

At the collective level, cultural practices help in shaping and reinforcing group identities. They produce loyalties and shape group/class relationships to education (Reay 2017). The third paper I introduced was published in Education Research (Xie 2016b) and is further developed in a manuscript that is under review. It examines the rural’s relationship to education by looking at the habitus transformation of rural students in elite universities. From a Bourdieusian perspective, the rural students may come to the elite environment as cultural outsiders, which may suggest the importance of habitus transformation for academic and social success. The premise is that there is a hierarchical relationship between the home culture and dominant culture rewarded in an elite environment. The feeling that their home culture is inferior to the dominant culture brings a painful dislocation between an old and a newly developing identity and becomes barriers to integration at elite universities. Yet, my analysis of a small group of academically successful rural students’ interview data suggests two different types of integration outcomes for them in an elite environment: “habitus transformation” and “habitus hysteresis”. I argue that the reason is they start from a compartmentalized fitness between their original habitus and the elite milieu they enter (Xie 2016b). This again reveals the characteristics of a society in transition. The cultural practices of the urban middle class are gaining its dominant position, bringing advantages to their children: the habitus alignment between their home environment and the elite institution. Yet, its half-breed, evolving nature and not yet fully arbitrary position leave space for students from other backgrounds. For example, those rural students coming to an elite environment find their own cultural elements are partially aligned with that of the emerging middle class in cities (valuing education and highlighting hard work). Some of them take refuge in a sense of familiarity and hide from unfamiliar social challenges in the new elite milieu. In other words, the field conditions have changed but their habitus lags behind. Yet, full integration into universities guarantees more chances in the accumulation of social and cultural capital (Stuber 2011).

All of the three publications gain theoretical insights from the work of Bourdieu on cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984, 1986, 1988), as well as later studies by DiMaggio (1982, 1997, 2012) and Lareau (1988, 2000, 2002). They, however, examine its relevance by placing it in the specific social context of Chinese society which is in constant flux. By linking the macro-level analysis on the competition for arbitrariness of their own cultural practices by city middle class to micro-level competition for privileges in elite universities, these papers explore the possibilities of Bourdieu’s theoretical tradition in understanding a transitional society. The fabric of the social structure is becoming increasingly clear but not clear enough yet, and the competition for cultural arbitrariness is becoming more fierce. What this means deserve further exploration.



 Ball, S. J. (2003). Class strategies and the education market: The middle classes and social advantage. New York, London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York, NY: Greenwood.

Bourdieu, P. (1988). Homo academicus. Cambridge, England: Polity Press. Bourdieu, P. (1989). The state nobility. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Chen, X. (2015). Who Has More Opportunities to Attend College?—An Empirical Study of the Strata Distribution of Different Qualities of Higher Education Opportunities in China. Chinese Education & Society, 48(3), 201-217. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/10611932.2015.1085769. doi:10.1080/10611932.2015.1085769

DiMaggio, P. (1982). Cultural capital and school success: The impact of status culture participation on the grades of U.S. high school students. American Sociological Review, 47, 189–201. doi:10.2307/2094962.

DiMaggio, P. (1997). Culture and cognition. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 263–287.

DiMaggio, P. (2012). Sociological perspectives on the face-face enactment of class distinction. In S. T. Fiske & H. R. Markus (Eds.), Facing social class: How societal ranks influences interaction (pp. 15–38). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

DiMaggio, P., & Mohr, J. (1985). Cultural capital, educational attainment, and martial selection. American Journal of Sociology, 90, 1231–1236. doi:10.1086/228209.

Lamont, M., & Lareau, A. (1988). Cultural capital: Allusions, gaps and glissandos in recent theoretical developments. Sociological Theory, 6, 153–168. doi:10.2307/202113

Lareau, A. (2000). Home advantage: Social class and parental intervention in elementary education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. (Original work published 1989)

Lareau, A. (2002). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Postiglione, G. A. (2015). Education and social change in China: Inequality in a market economy. New York, London: Routledge.

Reay, Diane. (2017). Miseducation: Inequality, Education, and the Working Classes. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sintas, J., & Álvarez, E. (2002). Omnivores show up again: The segmentation of cultural consumers in Spanish social space. European Sociological Review, 18, 353–368. doi:10.1093/esr/18.3.353

Stuber, J. M. (2011). Inside the college gates: How class and culture matter in higher education. Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books.

Xie, A. (2015a). Inside the College Gate: Rural Students and Their Academic and Social Success. Chinese Education & Society, 48(2), 77-80. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10611932.2015.1040672. doi:10.1080/10611932.2015.1040672

Xie, A. (2015b). Toward a More Equal Admission? Access in the Mass Higher Education Era. Chinese Education & Society, 48(3), 157-162. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/10611932.2015.1095614. doi:10.1080/10611932.2015.1095614

Xie, A. (2016). Family strategies, guanxi, and school success in Rural China. New York, London: Routledge.

Xie, A., & Postiglione, G. A. (2016). Guanxi and school success: An ethnographic inquiry of parental involvement in rural China. British journal of sociology of education, 37(7), 1014-1033.


Author Bio

Dr. Xie Ailei is Associate Professor and the Associate Dean of the Bay Area Education Policy Institute for Social Development at Guangzhou University. His main areas of research are on higher education and social justice, and rural education development in China. His publications examine the academic and social success of rural students in China’s most elite universities (Peking University Education Review, 2018; Higher Education Research, Educational Research, 2016); the value of rural parents on schooling (Peking University Education Review, 2017); how guanxi structures rural parents’ choices of school participation (British Journal of Sociology of Education, 2016); and access to China’s higher education (Chinese Education & Society, 2015) . The current research project that he is leading is on the social and academic experience of rural students in China’s elite universities. He has also been involved in studies on access to higher education institutions by the rural and ethnic minorities in Gansu. Dr. Xie Ailei gained his Ph.D degree in sociology of education from the University of Hong Kong. He was an Assistant Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University from the 2012 to 2013, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hong Kong from 2014 to 2017, and was selected as a visiting fellow to Cambridge University in 2016. He can be reached at xieailei@gmail.com.

Dr. Xie Ailei currently serves as the associate editor of the journal Chinese Education & Society. He is also on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Education Policy.

Raising children for the 21st Century – Changing methods and moralities in Chinese primary education


Dr Anni Kajanus

Elite schools in China aim to educate citizens fit for the 21st Century – competitive, competent and creative people with good cooperative skills and an international outlook. The adaptation of new progressive pedagogies that are used in combination with more traditional modes of discipline and learning, vary across institutions. Moreover, the current education system epitomizes the competitive spirit that has come to form a backdrop for everyday moral experiences and aspirations in contemporary China. Children work under high pressure to compete for access to the best educational tracks, which, it is hoped, will lead to socioeconomic mobility. At the same time, imported Euro-American pedagogies that emphasize free expression, self-discovery, creativity and deep learning, have been adapted to varying degrees. Finally, there is an increased emphasis on cooperative skills, sharing and helping others. The explicit teaching of these skills is part of the effort to resolve the “moral panic” of raising generations of selfish, pampered and egotistic only children, that has preoccupied parents and educators since the launching of the one child policy.

The three publications highlighted here explore the patterns of competition and morality that children develop in this transitional context. I have compared two schools in Nanjing, an urban ‘elite school’ that emphasizes competition and explicit moral education, and a semi-rural ‘average school’ that has less explicit instruction in moral values and norms, less emphasis on competition, and more free time for children to cooperate with each other without adult direction. The comparison revealed interesting differences, as well as shared aspects, in the following areas that were reported in the three recently published papers:

  • Cooperative skills. Children from the average school were more skilled in organizing joint activities and resolving conflicts without adult intervention. (Kajanus 2018) In my role as a sports instructor, I introduced a novel ball game in both schools. Two teams played against each other, in a manner that required both competitive motivation and cooperative skills. I found that when given the responsibility to manage the game without adult intervention, the elite school children struggled to enforce rules and to resolve conflicts. In the average school, children enjoyed the competition, but prioritized the smooth running of the game over winning or strictly enforcing rules. They also actively involved team members of varying abilities, thus making the game more engaging and enjoyable to all. I concluded that the overwhelming adult direction and management of the elite school children hinders the development of subtle skills of cooperation.
  • Competitive motivation. I explored children’s competitive motivation in more detail through a formal running experiment, in which children run on their own (non-competitive condition) and against a partner (competitive condition) (Kajanus 2019). The improvement of speed in the pair run is taken as a measure of competitive motivation. Even though children in the two schools were equally competitive, the elite school children’s motivation was more tied to the result of competition, that is, they enjoyed competitions if they won, but were not motivated to compete if they did not do well. At the average school children’s competitive motivation was not tied to winning to same extent. They were also motivated by the excitement and the communal atmosphere, and emphasized the benefits competition has through improving performance even when not winning.
  • Fairness. I collaborated with developmental psychologists Peter Blake, Katherine McAuliffe and Felix Warneken, to test children’s fairness behaviours through an experiment on inequity aversion (Kajanus, et al. 2019). Children played with a partner, making decisions of either accepting or rejecting distributions of sweets that were equal, advantageously unequal (getting more sweets than their partner), or disadvantageously unequal (getting less sweets than their partner). Children in both schools rejected both types of inequality, which was interesting in the light of previous studies that have shown that children in several societies accept advantage, while rejecting disadvantage (Blake, McAuliffe, et al. 2015). A detailed analysis of our findings also supported the conclusion that despite the similar results across the schools, the differences in these learning environments also had an impact on the children. Our findings suggested that at the elite school, children fell back on explicit moral norms learned from adults, while at the average school, their norms of fairness were more internalized through extensive participation in communal activities.

LogoAll three papers are based on research that brings together methods and approaches from social anthropology and developmental psychology. At the time of my ethnographic fieldwork (2014-2015), the children were 8 to 9 years old. I spent 10 months observing the everyday life of one 2nd grade classroom in each school, while living in the two communities and spending time with the children and their families also outside school. I later returned to the schools and the communities for several shorter visits (from 3 weeks to 2 months) to carry out experiments designed to address particular questions that had emerged form the ethnographic fieldwork. Originally an anthropologist by training, I have later also been trained in experimental methods. With my collaborators in the fields of developmental and cognitive psychology, we have shared a motivation to study child development in a culturally grounded way, and recently, this has led to us launching Culture & Ontogeny Research Initiative (CORI). https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/cori/(Facebook: fb.me/CORIteam  Twitter: @CORI_team)

In short, my research interest has been human cooperation, and the competitive and conflict behaviours that revolve around cooperation. Babies are born with basic capacities and motivations to cooperate with others. That is to say, to the relief of many parents, that they do not need to be taught to help others, to share, to make friends, to engage in joint activities, and so on (Tomasello 2009). However, they must learn, with age, the specific rules and patterns that pertain to cooperation and conflict resolution in their community. As children grow up in an environment of particular social norms and cultural values, the development of their cooperative behaviours is shaped by them. For example, while in some societies cooperation is mediated by explicit rules, such as turn-taking, in others, children learn to subtly align their interests and activities with those of others, and explicit conflicts rarely occur (Rogoff 2003).

The study of child development is, to a large extent, a study of Euro-American children, and the so-called cross-cultural study remains at the margin, often still serving the purpose of standing as the comparative ‘other’ to the Western norm. The aim of these three papers has been to provide nuanced within-culture comparisons that reveal some of the complexities of the current socio-moral transformation, and go beyond the simplistic characterizations of the Chinese society, often present in cross-cultural studies of child development and education.

Moreover, they offer a glimpse into how children’s cooperative skills and motivations develop in these diverse school environments. The disparities between Chinese educational institutions are infamous, and social mobility through education is not equally accessible to all. It is possible, however, that the more relaxed atmosphere of the average school, which leaves more room for the development of children’s own cooperative skills and supports a competitive mode that protects from the psychological burden on losing (inevitable at some point), will benefit the children later on in life. It is, of course, also possible, that the more strategic moral code and the zero-sum competitive mode of the children of the elite school, will help them fair better in their educational trajectories and the equally competitive job markets.


Blake, P.R., McAuliffe, K., Corbit, J., Callaghan, T.C., Barry, O., Bowie, A., Kleutsch, L., Kramer, K.L., Ross, E., Vongsachang, H., Wrangham, R., and F. Warneken (2015). The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature, 528(7581), 258-261.

Kajanus, A. 2018. Playing ball – cooperation and competition in two Chinese primary schools, in Cooperation in Chinese Communities. Morality and Practice. (eds.) Stafford, C, Judd, E. R. and E. Bell, London, New York: Bloomsbury Academic. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/cooperation-in-chinese-communities-9781350077218/

Kajanus, A. (2019). Mutualistic vs. zero-sum modes of competition – a comparative study of children’s competitive motivations and behaviours in China. Social Anthropology 27(1): 67-83. https://doi.org/10.1111/1469-8676.12578

Kajanus, A.; McAuliffe, K.; Warneken, F. and P. R. Blake. (2019). Children’s fairness in two Chinese Schools: A combined ethnographic and experimental study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 177: 282-296. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2018.08.012

Rogoff, B. (2003), The Cultural Nature of Human Development. Oxford;: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2009), Why We Cooperate. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Author bio

BookAnni Kajanus is an Assistant Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on education, child development, migration, morality and cognition. Anni is the author of the monograph Chinese Student Migration, Gender and Family, which situates the family project of investing in the overseas education of the only child within the wider socio-moral transformation of the Chinese society. Her most recent research brings together methods and approaches from anthropology and psychology to compare the cooperative, competitive and conflict behaviours and motivations of children in different communities. For this project, Anni has carried out ethnographic and experimental research in primary schools in China and the UK.

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 Sociologyhttps://doi.org/10.1177/2057150X19835145


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.

For more information and publications see:



Rural-to-urban migrant children in Chinese urban state schools: from access to quality?

Picture of the author

Dr Hui Yu

School of Education, South China Normal University, Guangzhou, China

Abstract: This paper examines the quality of education that the Chinese rural-to-urban migrant children enjoy after they got enrolled in urban state (and quasi-state) schools. It focuses on ‘migrant majority’ state schools and two typical types of quasi-state schools, namely, government-purchased private school and government-controlled private school. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in Beijing and Shanghai with 95 government officers, school leaders (headteachers and department heads), teachers, migrant parents, migrant children, local parents and local children. The findings show that the quality of education of migrant majority state schools can hardly be considered as being equal to that of traditional local state schools. As for the quasi-state school system, while realizing the migrant children’s right to education, it does not guarantee them a ‘good’ education. These situations have produced further obstacles to the migrant children’s attempts to access quality education.



Migrant children in urban state and quasi-state schools

In China, millions of rural labourers have left their hometowns to work in urban areas during the past three decades. In 2016, there were 135.85 million migrant labourers nationally (National Bureau of Statistics, 2017) with 13.95 million migrant children of compulsory education age (Ministry of Education, 2017). These children have difficulties enrolling in urban state schools because of not holding local household registration (hukou) in urban areas. Since 2001, the local governments nationwide have tried hard to make sure the majority of migrant children could enrol in local state schools. Over the past decade, the state school sector has recruited around 77%-80% migrant children nationwide (Yu, 2018).

In recent years, a group of traditionally non-elitist and ordinary state schools in Beijing and Shanghai have recruited more migrant than local students as a result of losing local children because of their school choice. As a result, these schools become ‘migrant majority’ state schools. In Beijing, in 2013 there were 562 schools (out of the total number of 1,440 schools for compulsory education age pupils) in which the percentage of migrant children is greater than 50%, and the highest percentage was 98%.[i] In the meantime, most of the unlicensed informal private schools have been turned into licensed schools. In Shanghai, the city municipality had a three-year plan (2008-2011) which aimed to support the unlicensed informal private schools to register. The main form of support is that the local government purchases or controls the school with a huge amount of investment, making it a quasi-state school. As a result, by 2011 162 registered migrant children schools had emerged with 132,000 migrant children, which accounts for 28% of the total number of migrant children.[ii]


Research question

Does enrolling in state or quasi-state schools mean that the migrant children can now enjoy equal educational resources and expect to have outcomes equal to the local children?



This paper presents findings from my PhD thesis (Yu, 2018), which examines the enactment of school enrolment policy for internal migrant children in urban China. This study chooses Beijing and Shanghai as fieldwork sites with three months of fieldwork carried out in 2014 and 2015. I followed the purposive sampling and snowball sampling strategies to get in touch with 95 participants, including: government officers, school leaders (headteachers and department heads), teachers, migrant parents, migrant children, local parents and local children. Semi-structured interviews were used to collect data about the participants’ experiences, interpretations and attitudes about migrant children’s schooling and related policies.


From access to quality?

As for the migrant majority state schools, which are traditionally non-elitist and ordinary schools, they are now facing the problem of ‘declining education quality’ in terms of their declining exam results and school reputation. Many of them have recruited a disproportionate number of students as a result of receiving migrant children. Taking school X (in Fengtai District, Beijing) in my sample as an example: the maximum annual recruitment quota of this school was 60. However, in 2012, nearly 400 students (mostly migrant children) applied to this school. Finally, under pressure from the district municipal department of education, the school enlarged its recruitment number to 96. Recruiting a disproportionate number of students, more than half of my respondent teachers report a shortage of teaching and learning resources in their schools. In addition, their schools have to turn specialist music and arts classrooms into regular classrooms at the expense of losing these specialist spaces. Furthermore, the small class teaching reform in their schools, which aims to improve educational quality through the reduction of class sizes, has had to be stopped.

As for the former unlicensed informal private schools, they now receive full government funding as their sole financial resource and have been partially included into the state sector. These government-purchased/controlled schools offer quasi-state education for migrant children, but generally under worse conditions compared to state schools. The weak foundation of the schools in their unlicensed informal private school period is a common reason for the current disadvantages. Yet the main difficulty they face is the local government’s willingness to allow a low cost and inferior form of education provision in these schools. To be more specific, the funding that the schools can receive, which is calculated by the student number, is inadequate. As reported by the respondent headteachers, there is a lack of teaching resources and hardware facilities owing to the schools’ financial deficit. The funding the school receive can merely support the basic teaching activities without providing extra resources for the students to do extra-curricular activities and for the teachers to undertake professional development training. The schools have tried to enlarge class sizes in order to obtain more funding, yet this endeavour has caused a new problem – oversized classes. For example, in school Y (in Minhang District, Shanghai) in my sample, the student number is 60 per class, while in regular state schools the number should be less than 45 per class. Such overcrowding incurs complaints from my respondent migrant parents. Furthermore, the situation of low salary has also caused the instability of teacher supply, which in turn has negatively influenced teaching quality and children’s social emotional development.


Towards a ‘low cost and inferior schooling approach’

What can be identified from the above analysis is a ‘low cost and inferior schooling approach’ for migrant children conducted by the local government. In response to the conflict of limited government funding and high demand for school enrolment from migrant children, the local government chose to establish a large number of ‘schools with basic study resources’ with relatively low costs, instead of creating a number of ‘schools offering good education’ with massive investment. In other words, the realisation of access to schools for migrant children is at the expense of reducing the standard of education they receive. While some of the interviewed migrant parents express some dissatisfaction with these schools, most of them still deemed the school to be acceptable – at least it provides their children with a place to study. Yet this situation has produced further obstacles to their children’s attempts to access quality education.



Ministry of Education (2017). National education development statistical bulletin (2016). Beijing: Ministry of Education Website. Retrieved from: http://www.moe.gov.cn/jyb_sjzl/sjzl_fztjgb/201707/t20170710_309042.html

National Bureau of Statistics (2017). National migrant rural labourer monitoring investigation report (2016). Beijing: National Bureau of Statistics Website. Retrieved from: http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/zxfb/201704/t20170428_1489334.html

Yu, H. (2018). From access to quality? The enactment of school enrolment policy for internal migrant children in urban China (Doctoral dissertation). University College London, London. Retrieved from: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/10038374/


Author Bio

Hui Yu (PhD, IOE) is a senior research fellow in School of Education, South China Normal University (SCNU). His research focuses on the Chinese rural-to-urban migrant children’s education and social mobility, adopting the works of critical social theorists such as Bourdieu and Foucault. His ongoing project is about the schooling policy of children involved in cross-border migration in Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. His works have been published in international peer-reviewed journals, including Journal of Education Policy.

Latest article:

Yu, H. (2018). “Shaping the Educational Policy Field: ‘Cross-field Effects’ in the Chinese Context.” Journal of Education Policy, 33 (1): 43-61. DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1310931

Email: hui.yu@m.scnu.edu.cn

ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Hui_Yu41

Institutional profile: http://jky.scnu.edu.cn/team/anxisuozuolan/jiaoyuguanliyanjiusuo/

ORCiD: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9651-502X

[i] Data source: Beijing Municipality of Education officers

[ii] Data resource: from the policy text Shanghai Municipality of Education’s Regulation on Improving the Hygiene Condition in the Private Primary School Run for Migrant Children in 2011.


Church Participation as Intercultural Encounter in the Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK

Yu, Y., & Moskal, M. (2018). Missing intercultural engagements in the university experiences of Chinese international students in the UK. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education. doi: 10.1080/03057925.2018.1448259

Yun Yu

Dr Yun Yu


East China Normal University, China


Abstract 中文摘要

The recent flourishing of student mobility has seeded a booming research area in intercultural education and integration, as more and more students engage in this migratory trend. This project is a mixed-method analysis of church participation as a direct intercultural encounter in the experiences of non-Christian Chinese international students in the UK. The study employs survey, semi-structured in-depth interviews, participant observation, and document analysis as research methods to investigate the intentions behind and purposes of the intercultural engagement between churches and non-Christian Chinese students. The study also presents the western culture, Christianity, as well as the cultural/religious background of Chinese students, and highlights Christian ambitions and missionary strategies (working model) towards non-Christian international students. The findings indicate that social connections with the host environment and the nature of organisation play a significant role in the cross-cultural adaptation and individual development of international students. Besides offering an explanation for the mechanism behind the students’ church participation, the findings also indicate that the overwhelming Chinese students (especially in Business Schools) constrain their intercultural communication within the campus. Therefore, to some extent, it is the churches rather than the university facilitates the intercultural engagement for international students.


随着国际学生的不断增加,学生流动方面的研究主要集中于跨文化教育以及社会融入。本研究探索了在英中国留学生(非基督徒)参与教堂文化活动的社会现象。该研究采用多种研究方法,包括:问卷,半结构式深入访谈,参与观察以及文献分析,深入分析了基督教堂与中国留学生互动交流的原因,目的,以及影响。该研究还探索了西方基督教文化和中国学生的宗教文化背景,揭露了英国基督教堂对中国学生战略性传教活动以及拓展中国基督教市场的愿景。研究分析指出,国际学生与当地环境的社会联结以及互动平台的性质对学生跨文化适应以及个人成长发挥重要影响。 除了解释学生参与教堂活动背后的动态机制,该研究认为,大量中国学生涌入英国校园(特别是商学院)限制了学生多元文化交流。从某种意义上来说,教堂的一系列针对中国学生的文化活动提供了更多(相较于大学校园)的社会融入与垮文化参与的机会,大学需采取措施在多元文化的校园环境下推动切实有效的跨文化融合与交流。

This study focuses on intercultural encounters and engagement in the cross-cultural experience of international students. It investigates the cultural experience of Chinese students in and around religious organisations in the UK. At a general level, it explores the role of intercultural encounters and interaction in students’ overseas experiences; at an individual level, it examines in detail the intentions, the processes, and the influences of church participation on Chinese international students; and at the organisational level, the study analyses the motivations and missionary model of faith-based organisations through the social support they offer to the international Christian community.

The study aims to address the overarching research question: What is the role of Christian churches in the intercultural experiences of Chinese international students in the UK?  There are five sub-questions further developed from both student and church perspectives to comprehensively explore the main issue: 1) Why do non-Christian Chinese students choose to go to churches after they arrive in the UK? 2) Do Christian churches serve as a medium of intercultural encounter for Chinese international students?  How do they serve? 3) What is the institutional motivation of the Christian community for attracting international students, especially Chinese students? 4) What are the Christian churches’ strategies in working with Chinese international students? 5) What and why is more important for students, religious or intercultural experience?

In order to answer the above questions, the present study used a combination of survey, participant observation, semi-structured in-depth interview, and document analysis methods. The fieldwork took place in two Christian churches located in the area of an established university campus in the UK. In total, 501 Chinese Master’s students of the university completed the survey, of whom 15 students who were frequent churchgoers were invited to take part in semi-structured in-depth interviews. In addition, five Christian church representatives were interviewed, including group leaders and volunteers with different responsibilities in the international groups.

The study finds that, church participation as a form of cultural engagement was not an accidental choice for the Chinese international students. Instead, it is related to the students’ considerations of and negotiations with the challenging host environment. Expectation gaps (such as the language barrier), constrained intercultural communication within universities, public discrimination, and loneliness, all occurred simultaneously at the beginning of their intercultural interaction in the campus-based university. The students’ need for language practice, a social network, and cultural knowledge, together with their motivation to engage with the local community pushed them to seek broader social contact to obtain the resources required to complete the adaptation process. Church participation for Chinese students seemed to be a mark of desperation in their pursuit of interaction with natives outside of the university, since their courses and the university provided so little opportunity due to the high numbers of students there from China. Therefore, the cultural interactions around the Christian churches responded in a supportive way to fill the gaps and meet the needs of Chinese students.

Interaction between the churches and the non-Christian Chinese students took place on common ground but with divergent ultimate goals. Showing mutual understanding of and tolerance towards each other, both sides worked together and actively communicated in the Christian community. In terms of their divergent ultimate goals yet clear mutual understanding, on the one hand, the needs of the Chinese students in the adaptation process made it possible for the churches to organise social events in order to attract students. However, on the other hand, most Chinese students tended to be indifferent to the mission orientation of the churches and instead concentrated on the social support that was helpful to them. Therefore, for the Chinese students, church participation had more of an intercultural than a religious meaning. Nevertheless, although it was simply a kind of intercultural experience for the majority, for a few of them it brought religious transformation.

This study establishes that the nature of the organisation in the host country has a profound influence on intercultural interaction and engagement for international students, and highlights the potential effects on behaviours and values after religious communication and interaction have taken place. It identifies the social connections with the host environment and organisational factors that play a significant role in the cross-cultural adaptation of international students. It contributes to an understanding about the diversity of intercultural encounters in a meaningful sense, and uncovers the essence of individual interactions and social integration in the cross-cultural interaction.

On a practical level, the study reveals the problem of university involvement for international students. The findings emphasise the needs of international students particularly in terms of cultural engagement and involvement within the campus-based university and calls for UK universities to consider ways to establish an inclusive atmosphere in the international education they claim to be offering. It also emphasises how the acceptance of host nationals and inclusion in social activities bring a sense of belonging for international students in the host country. Meaningful intercultural contact and learning depends on a multicultural environment, the facilitation by institutions, and the students’ motivation to engage. Facilitating intercultural communication requires considerable effort to nurture intercultural competency and provide sufficient and meaningful intercultural encounters.



Dr. Yun Yu is Post-doc researcher in Faculty of Education, East China Normal University (ECNU), China. Her research interest is around international and comparative education, social mobility, cross-cultural adaptation, intercultural engagement and inclusion. She is the author of Missing Intercultural Engagements in the University Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK (Yu and Moskal, 2018).

Her prior research in doctorate study was Church Participation as Intercultural Encounter in the Experiences of Chinese International Students in the UK. If you have any enquiry, please contact emmayuyun@163.com.