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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Recreational reading recommendations

The festive season is nearly upon us and you may have time for some recreational reading. For inspiration look no further than the Library’s Education in Literature Collection. The collection contains novels, plays, biographies and DVDs which explore the educational experience at all levels and from different viewpoints.

Recent additions to the collection include Once upon a Term by Michael C. Cox. The term in question is the summer one at Beaumont Abbey, a private, independent boarding school for boys in the north of England. The author has drawn on his own experiences, and those of colleagues, to make his characters and events come to life.

In Confidence by Rowland Manthorpe and Kirstin Smith Ellie and Ben are both in their final year at university.confidence The story of their progress (or lack of it) is blended with an introduction to Nietzsche’s philosophy of confidence. A strange mixture that unexpectedly works very well.

One woman dares to risk everything for the chance of a better life in The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe. This novel is a compelling fictionalised account of the life of the fascinating African-American woman, Anita Hemmings. In the 1890s she had to pose as a white student in order to be able to attend Vassar, a prestigious women’s college.

The failure of the British government’s post-World War Two “Groundnut Scheme” left empty buildings at Kongwa in Central Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The buildings were utilised as a school at which, at aged nine, Tony Edwards became a pupil in 1952. His experiences  are described in The Slope of Kongwa Hill: a boy’s tale of Africa by Anthony R. Edwards. Added to the usual tribulations of boarding school life were encounters with deadly snakes, locust invasions, shooting game for the school’s meat supply and other trials of living in a remote location surrounded by the African bush.

If you prefer a scary tale as an antidote to Seasonal Cheer then you could read The Perils and Dangers of this Night by Stephen Gregory. The setting is a boy’s prep school, Foxwood Manor, which lies deep in the Dorset woodlands. It is Christmas 1966 and twelve year old Alan Kerr has been deserted by his mother. Instead he has to spend Christmas with the Kemps.perils The Headmaster and his wife are not ideal company for a lonely boy. Things seem to change for the better with the unexpected arrival of an ex-pupil, Martin Pryce and his girlfriend. Gradually Alan realises that Martin is seeking revenge for some terrible past event. A heavy fall of snow isolates the school and it becomes a Christmas no-one will forget. The hauntingly chilly, strange events that follow build to a frightening and bloody finale.

Just a reminder that books may be borrowed for 4 weeks and the DVDs for 1 week. However because the Library is closed for Christmas from 5pm on Friday 23rd December 2016 until 8.30 am on Tuesday 3rd January 2017, DVDs which are borrowed from Friday 16th December onwards will be due on Wednesday 4th January.

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Two items from the Baines Collection at the IOE Library: The Lilliputian Library or Gulliver’s Museum

As we highlight the Baines Collection in our Special Collections Advent Calendar today, I thought it would be appropriate for me to write about two items from the collection based on some material I had prepared when I recently showcased our Special Collections at the UCL Post Graduate Day.  The Baines Collection consists of 200 books dating from the 1700s to 1920. This is a collection of children’s books that originally belonged to the Baines Family (many of them have inscriptions providing names of family members to whom the books belonged) and were given in 1955 to the Ministry of Education. The collection
was eventually donated to the IOE in 1992.


The 1726 edition of Gulliver’s Travels is held in the UCL Libraries Special Collections

These two tiny books (volumes 4 and 5) I chose (Baines 104) were both published around the 1780s and belong to a series of work published in ten volumes entitled The Lilliputian Library or Gulliver’s Museum. The success of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels early in the century led to publishers to draw on this popularity by associating subsequent children’s publications on Gulliver and Lulliput. The Lilliputian Library or Gulliver’s Museum is an example of one such publication that uses this marketing ploy.

The frontispiece confirms that when first published the complete series cost five British shillings and each volume six pence for the following reason:

…[it is ]but for the convenience of those little Masters and Misses, whole finances may not admit of expending to capital a sum at once, they may be supplied with one or more volumes, weekly or monthly, till the whole work is completed, at Six-pence each.

Five Shillings was a considerable sum in the 18th Century and we can therefore assume baines-2
that only middle and higher income families could afford these books -and also were most likely to have the literacy skills to read them. The ten volumes consist of lectures on morality, historical pieces, interesting fables, diverting tales, miraculous voyages, surprising adventures, remarkable lives, poetical pieces, comical jokes and useful letters. This whole formed the “complete system of juvenile knowledge, for the amusement and improvement of all little masters and misses, whether in summer or winter, morning, noon or evening”. The author is given as Lilliputius Gulliver, Citizen of Utopia, and Knight of the most noble Order of Human Prudence. However, it is thought that the series was by a Richard Johnson, a neglected 18th century children’s author, usually described as a ‘hack writer’ for he did not have any qualms about using the work of other authors if he had to to get his commissioned work paid for – see here for more information.

The small size (the books fit in the palm of my hand!) appealed to children who could more easily hold the books in their hands. We often think of miniaturisation as something that is a modern concept with computer devices getting smaller and smaller but in the 18th century, this was a growing phenomenon most evidenced in the trend towards designing dolls houses with smaller and smaller and more intricately designed furniture including book shelves and tiny books that sat on the shelves.

Now let me tell you about these two items in turn.

Continue reading

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IOE Library’s Special Collections Advent Calendar 2016

Although Advent officially began on 27th November this year, I am publishing the Special Collections Advent calendar today in the run up to Christmas. Over the next 25 days, starting today 1st December, you will get some information about each of the historical collections held in the Newsam Library. Each day you will also be treated to a video of a musical performance or a documentary containing archival film footage or a short explanatory film on a genre of work, a famous educationist/theorist or subject taught in schools.  There are also some fun films towards the end of the calendar.

So begin the count at http://bit.ly/2gVvWqg by clicking on the box corresponding to the date and enjoy! Oh, and don’t miss Christmas Day as there’s a real treat in store for you!

UCL IOE Special Collections Advent Calendar

UCL IOE Special Collections Advent Calendar

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Calling International Students

Users of the UCL Institute of Education Library can find international resources in a variety of places:

Yet aside from an abundance of  physical and virtual resources, our richest source of information is often our international students. There is so much we can learn from them which is the aim of the Country/Student Focus page in the International Education LibGuide.

This is a call to all international students and staff to share and compare their education experiences.  The International Education LibGuide will feature a particular country and student each month and the first focus page features the lovely Thu Thu from Myanmar (Burma) here.

thu-thu-3If any other student or staff would like to write a similar piece, please fill out the form here. You only need to provide three things:

  • a brief description of yourself (100 words or less) and optional photo,
  • a brief description of your experience ofeducation in your country (200 words or less) and
  • a useful resource (book, article..) of education in your country (check Explore,  suggest  a publication for us to buy or email me b.sakarya@ucl.ac.uk  for help).

During this gloomy time with talk of building walls, let’s concentrate on building bridges.

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Looking out, up and in


After sitting through and participating in 3 days of sessions at ECIL 2016 in Prague while networking with librarians from 51 countries, it was a relief to actually get into a room full of books.

On a visit to the Ministry of Culture (Czech Republic), I could actually smell the books before I saw them: dusty, musty– a librarian elixir. We sighed when we viewed a book with Copernicus’s signature (below) which inspired me to visit a few more libraries on my own.


The Klementinum includes The Baroque Library Hall completed in 1722. Books comprise theological works since 1600 collected by the Jesuits and the site is currently the National Library of the Czech Republic.  It’s certainly ornate, but no photos were permitted —  not a problem because I also visited Strahov Monastery where you can buy a permit to photograph.

The Strahov was founded in the 12th century as a monastery and houses the Theological and Philosophical Halls. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

dscn0094 dscn0095

It seems ornate ceilings were inspirational in past. I wonder if we’re missing something in our downward viewing today. I’m going to make an effort to look up more often, think things through, if nothing else, to relieve the eye strain.

ECIL 2016 was a great chance to look up and out, think, share and consider our place in the library world.  There is an abundance of good practice out there, a lot of shared problems and some excellent research (this was a conference loaded with doctoral research and Phds in librarianship).  What I find in going out is that it forces me to look in. As a part of a wide-world of libraries, the UCL IOE Library’s hard-working librarians do a sterling job of preserving the old, embracing the new and supporting students amidst a rapidly changing landscape. It’s good to go out, but it’s always nice to come home.


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Trial access to Childlink and Child Protection Hub from UCL Library Services

child-linkUCL has trial access to Childlink and Child Protection Hub until 25th November 2016. To access off-site please use Desktop@UCL Anywhere

Childlink is a one stop source of information on children, young people and families. This database focuses on legislation, policies, and practices. Approximately 70% of all information provided on this service relates to the UK, with the remainder focusing on European and International studies.


Child Protection Hub (NSCPH) aims to enhance and share child protection knowledge within the professional communities throughout the UK and the island of Ireland.

Please send feedback on this resource here.

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