How does education in China compare with other countries?

by Center for Strategic & International Studies, China Power

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.


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.

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.

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. Read more…


One thought on “How does education in China compare with other countries?

  1. Though the literacy rate is high and innovation is needed in China, students’ attitudes and mindsets have been proven difficult to guide. Even if PISA scores place Shanghai “at the top,” there are prices paid for this test training. Have you read “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” by Yong Zhao?


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