How does education in China compare with other countries?

Innovation is a critical component of national power.  It propels countries to develop new products or methods of production that drive economic progress and enable states to tackle transnational challenges, such as climate change and global health crises. The ability of a country to cultivate its capacity for innovation rests with its domestic education system. A well-educated workforce is instrumental to technological and scientific discovery, which can propel states to the apex of the increasingly innovation-based global economy.  This need is particularly salient for China as its leaders seek to push the Chinese economy up the global value chain.

Primary and Secondary Education

In an effort to promote sustainable development, Chinese leaders have sought to improve educational quality and increase access across the country. The most notable government policy, the 1986 Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education, called for achievement of the ‘two basics’ (liangji): universal enrollment among school-aged children (6-15 years) and full literacy among those under the age of 20. Other measures have centered on revising the national curriculum and enhancing teacher training programs.

Yet educational access remains uneven in China. Students born into affluent families generally have greater access to high-quality education than those from lower income backgrounds. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics suggest that urban residents in China enjoy a nearly threefold income advantage over their rural counterparts. The household registration system (hukou) has further widened this development gap by restricting the internal movement of persons.  Education-finance policies requiring local governments to bear partial responsibility for funding schools have compounded this issue, leaving less affluent areas without sufficient resources to pay skilled teachers, purchase necessary instruction materials, and maintain school facilities.

Migration from rural areas has forced the closure of village schools, contributing to the decrease in Chinese primary schools from 668,685 in 1995 to 201,377 in 2014.

Literacy is a baseline indicator of educational access. High levels of literacy serve as the foundation for improved access to information and directly enhance an individual’s ability to contribute to society.  As of 2011, China had all but eliminated illiteracy among young and middle-aged citizens – a landmark achievement for a country with the world’s largest population. Nevertheless, provincial variations reveal the incomplete nature of China’s ongoing development. Wealthy cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, reported 2014 literacy rates (98.52 percent and 96.85 percent) comparable with those of developed countries. At the other extreme, Tibet’s literacy rate was a mere 60.07 percent in same year, pegging it closer to under-developed countries like Haiti and Zambia.

Regional variations in educational access become more evident when considering the average length of schooling per student. To assess the role education plays in evaluating economic development and quality of life, the United Nations calculates the Education Index (EI) as part of its annually released Human Development Index (HDI). EI is calculated from mean and expected years of schooling and ranges from 0 (no educational attainment) to 1 (theoretically perfect educational attainment). EI values vary widely across China. In 2014, Beijing enjoyed a high EI of 0.854, which closely matches that of Iceland (0.853), an OECD country that ranks sixth on the Human Development Index. EI is lowest in Tibet, whose value of 0.45, when compared to EI values from around the world, places it in the bottom 20 percent.

 Income-levels correspond to the World Bank’s development classification, which uses GNI per capita (Atlas method) to calculate the levels of development.

Urbanization has exaggerated regional differences in educational access. The movement of people from rural to urban areas within China in search of employment opportunities and higher wages is among the largest internal migrations in human history. Migration from rural areas has forced the closure of village schools, contributing to the decrease in Chinese primary schools from 668,685 in 1995 to 201,377 in 2014. Rural migrants have flooded the labor market in urban centers, including Beijing and Shanghai, such that migrant laborers comprise roughly one-third of China’s total labor force. These population shifts have contributed to overcrowded classrooms, which may come under even greater strain as the number of children of migrant workers residing in China’s biggest cities is expected to increase by 1.5 million annually.

More developed regions have managed to offset much of this demographic shift. Some of China’s most densely populated areas compare favorably with cities in the United States in terms of student-teacher ratios. The average number of students per teacher in primary and secondary schools in Beijing and Shanghai is 15:1 and 14:1, respectively.  By comparison, New York City and Los Angeles have elementary and secondary school student-teacher ratios of 15:1 and 21:1, respectively. Chinese classrooms also have fewer students per teacher than the global average at both the primary and secondary level.

Less economically developed regions often suffer from the migration of qualified teachers to more developed parts of the country and lack adequate funds to hire and properly train instructors. Despite generally lower population density levels than urban areas, limited economic resources manifest in fewer, less-qualified teachers per student.  Guangxi province, for instance, has primary and secondary student-teacher ratios of 20:1 and 24:1. These patterns are mirrored in less developed regions around the world. According to a 2013 United Nations report, adolescents residing in rural areas of developing countries are less likely to have access to institutions with favorable student-teacher ratios. In India, insufficient funding has resulted in national primary and secondary student-teacher ratios of at 29:1 and 34:1, respectively.

Highest and Lowest Provincial Incomes in China (2015) | IMF-WEO
Rank Province Nominal GDP per capita
Population Density (per sq. km)
1 Tianjin $17,334 $30,611 1,086
2 Beijing $17,064 $30,136 1,195
3 Shanghai $16,560 $29,245 3,630
Median $6,899 $12,183 267
29 Guizhou $4,792 $8,463 197.4
30 Yunnan $4,658 $8,227 116.7
31 Gansu $4,201 $7,419 60.1


In order to address these imbalances, the central government has implemented policies to realign education funding. The National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) set ambitious achievement targets for primary and secondary education. The plan emphasizes the need to boost scientific and technological innovation by developing China’s human-resource base.  Stated goals include universalizing preschool education and improving the nine-year compulsory education system through the “rational allocation” of resources and provision of “special support” to the less fortunate.

Local governments are also taking action to tackle disparities in education access. Shenzhen has waived school fees and Shanghai has offered legal status and funding for migrant children. The Ministry of Education has vowed to crack down on arbitrary fees, which allow some families to send their children to better schools outside the student’s home province. Additionally, the Chinese government passed the Compulsory Education Law in 2006 to galvanize local reform, prompting cities such as Wuhan to develop policies that allow migrant children living in urban areas to attend local schools without the requisite urban hukou.

Tertiary Education

Tertiary education, generally understood as post-secondary school learning supported by universities, technical training institutes, community colleges, and research laboratories, is essential to a country’s competitiveness in an increasingly innovation-driven global economy. Over the last decade, China has made considerable strides in advancing tertiary education, with the number of institutions more than doubling and government expenditures increasing from $52.66 billion in 2003 to $311 billion in 2014. The 211 Project and 985 Project, initiatives designed to raise research standards and cultivate rencai (people with talent), further demonstrate the effort Chinese leaders are making to modernize the country’s education system.

At present, however, the quality of Chinese universities lags behind that of other countries. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017, a widely respected London-based university measure, includes only two Chinese institutions among the top 100 universities worldwide.  Peking and Qinghua universities place 29th and 25th respectively, among the 978 tertiary institutions featured in the world ranking. By comparison, the study found that the United States is home to fifteen of the top twenty universities in the world. University rankings released by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy also reflect this division. Qinghua and Peking universities rank 58th and 71st in the consultancy’s global comparison.  China’s 3rd and 4th nationally-ranked universities, Zhejiang and Fudan, fail to make the top 100.

China’s top universities are highly selective. Peking University does not publicize its admission rates, but applicants from Beijing are believed to have a 0.5 percent chance of acceptance, which is up to 40 times higher than applicants from elsewhere in the country. When compared globally, Peking University’s low admission rate reveals the exceptionally competitive nature of tertiary education in China. Two of the world’s most well-regarded higher education institutions in the United States, Harvard University and Stanford University, have admission rates around 5 percent. In the United Kingdom, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge have acceptance rates over 17 percent.

The structure of the national admissions process further compounds this disparity.  College hopefuls are bound by their hukou (household registration) and performance on the gaokao, China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination. Every year, universities set quotas for how many applicants may be admitted from each province. Institutions allocate the highest number of spots to applicants from the institution’s home province, and typically preferential treatment is given to urban residents from elsewhere for the remaining spots. Consequently, students from rural or lower-income Chinese provinces must often score significantly higher on the gaokao than their counterparts with urban hukou in order to be admitted into the same institution.  

China and India supply almost half of (46.4 percent) the global 6.4 million Science and Engineering bachelor’s degrees.

Chinese universities are generally understood to be divided into four tiers, with Tier 1 encompassing universities designated to receive substantial central government funding to develop China as a world-class research center. The cutoff gaokao scores (fenshuxian) required for admission into each tier are determined annually, but a student’s chances for acceptance usually depend on the difficulty of the gaokao, university quotas, academic interests, and their hukou. A high number of Tier-1 institutions are concentrated in wealthy municipalities and provinces, which earmarks them for more government funding than their lower-ranking counterparts.  Specifically, five of the top ten universities in China are located in Beijing and Shanghai.

Tertiary enrollment rates further reflect China’s stark urban-rural education divide. On the national level, just over a quarter of the country’s college-age population is enrolled in a tertiary institution.  Shanghai, one of China’s wealthiest municipality, boasts an enrollment rate of 70 percent, while provinces like Guangxi suffer from enrollment rates below 20 percent. A similar trend surfaces when comparing countries across the globe. Highly developed countries in North America and Western Europe have tertiary enrollment rates averaging around 75 percent.  Conversely, in developing regions in Central Asia, just over a quarter of the population attains tertiary education.

Undergraduate University Degrees Awarded | Source
Year China United States European Union*
2000 495,624 1,254,618 1,077,459
2005 1,465,786 1,456,401 1,264,903
2010 2,590,535 1,668,227 N/A


 * Aggregate values from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Many of those who attend Chinese universities pursue degrees in science and engineering fields.  According to the 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators Report, China and India supply almost half of (46.4 percent) the global 6.4 million Science and Engineering (S&E) bachelor’s degrees. The two countries are projected to collectively account for two-thirds of the increase in global S&E graduates through 2030. By comparison, the European Union and United States supplied 11.5 percent and 9.2 percent, respectively, of the global share of S&E graduates.

This outpouring of S&E graduates may present its own problems for China as it seeks to transition to a consumer-driven economy.  A Qinghua and Fudan University joint study observed a gap between China’s supply and its need for highly skilled labor. Specifically, western provinces have skills shortages in fields such as research and development and capital operation, and eastern provinces lack skilled technical workers. Moreover, high-skilled workers often seek opportunities in the same cities, which can lead to an excess of job hunters in a particular market. In 2013, the tertiary education system supplied more highly-skilled workers than the economy demanded, resulting in a new-graduate unemployment rate more than three times higher than the national average.  Educational attainment outstripping market demands is not unique to China. In South Korea, recent graduates face a highly competitive job market with scarce employment opportunities, forcing some students to linger at university.

Cultivating a highly-skilled domestic labor force is crucial as China endeavors to transition to an innovation-based economy.  As outlined in the National Medium- and Long-term Talent Development Plan (2010-2020), the central government has vowed to improve coordination between tertiary education and demands in the labor market. Furthermore, it aims to establish higher-education research bases in central and western provinces, increase spending on human resources from 10.75 to 15 percent of GDP, and raise the national tertiary enrollment rate to 40 percent by 2020. Effective implementation of the Talent Development Plan may prove critical as Chinese leaders seek to facilitate the country’s economic shift from a manufacturing power to global innovator.

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