Why meritocracy may cement inequality : a closer look at China

Mass literacy and universal tests have brought higher education within reach of literally a billion people in China, if they have some academic aptitude at all and work hard enough. This is probably what you believe, whether you favour the Chinese political system or not. Maybe precisely now that hundreds of Chinese students cross your path every day at UCL  – all of them obviously high achievers.

Equal educational opportunity accomplished in China ? Not so, says researcher Ye Liu in her recently published study Higher education, meritocracy and inequality in China (2016).

If you let contenders run a race on the same course, but shackle some of them, who will reach the goal first and snatch the prize? So if someone from a rural background has fewer opportunities to start with, will they really make it to a prestigious university in the capital? In addition to this general social issue, a centrally organised state like the People’s Republic has quotas for everything; and if the quota to get a study place in Beijing is far better for people from Beijing, it’s tough on someone from a mountain village out there. One way of getting ahead is joining the Chinese Communist Party. Which may be what the Party aimed at all along.

imperial_examination_cheating_materialAn interesting insight is that unsuccessful candidates usually blame themselves and not the system. (You have probably done the same in your life. No? That’s because you have not noticed either.)

‘Cribbing garment’ to cheat at the extremely competitive imperial examination of the past.

A report on Ye Liu’s work in the Times Higher Education reveals that ‘meritocracy’ was originally a negative, satirical term. Sociologist Michael Young postulated half a century ago in The rise of the meritocracy: When a system pretends to be fair, it may be less fair than an openly aristocratic one. It makes you think you are a contender when you are not.

As Dr Liu explains in The Conversation, ‘meritocracy’ has since been turned into a positive, desirable concept, together with a return to grammar schools, if not ‘intelligence tests’. According to Liu, the mantra that “IQ plus effort” will get you anywhere shaped the policies of ensuing British Governments as well as the European Union.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is the long historical lens; it refers to tough exams and unfair quotas which were in place 600 years ago! The book also debates the influence of the One-Child Policy on the opportunities of women and the long-term effects of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Is there a connection between cultural capital and education? Do the musical instruments your family owns, for instance, indicate how likely you are to climb a social ladder?

Ye Liu (or Liu Ye in Chinese) studied and worked at the UCL Institute of Education before and is now a lecturer in International Development at King’s College London.


Dr Ye Liu, King’s College London

The Newsam Library at the IOE is strong in research into higher education and the recent field of comparative higher education. Our Comparative Education Collection holds around 100 books on higher education in China alone. You will find many of them on the lower floor (Level 3) at classmark 510, which is followed by 511 for Taiwan and 512 for Hong Kong. Look out for our features on the IOE Library guides. More, of course, are available online, all listed on Explore.

Another recent addition is Quality assurance and institutional transformation : the Chinese experience (2016) by Shuiyun Liu (Liu Shuiyun), who earned her doctorate at the IOE, too, and now works at Beijing Normal University. Perhaps you, too, will find topics in Chinese education to look into or even to compare internationally?

Photograph of cribbing garment: By Jack No1 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Candidates sat exams in tiny cells for days and nights!

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