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Equity issues in Chinese higher education policy - a case Study of China’s enrolment expansion policy

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posted on 17.02.2017, 03:04 authored by Zhang, Hongzhi
This study investigates the highly influential enrolment expansion policy in Chinese higher education. This policy had a wider impact on the socio-economic fabric of China in the past decade. Nonetheless, the equity issues associated with the enrolment expansion policy have not attracted a great deal of scholarly research. The aim of this study therefore, is to explore how educational equity issues were understood and addressed in the formulation and implementation of the enrolment expansion policy. This study aims to contribute to that field of educational research called educational equity policy research. This involves the analysis together of education policy research and educational equity research. Drawing primarily from Chinese materials, this study seeks particularly to contribute to Chinese research in this field. But it also aims to provide an accessible analysis of equity issues in higher education in China for an English speaking audience that is not familiar with the Chinese education system or with equity issues in Chinese education. I begin with a discussion of two bodies of research literature; that on Chinese education policy and that on educational equity in China. In the latter instance, I look at the literature produced during the Mao era and the post-Mao in order to illustrate two very different approaches to equity that have characterized education in China in the 20th and 21st century. In the former instance, educational equity was not so much a research topic as a government policy. In the post Mao era policy researchers themselves paid increasing attention to equity issues drawing on very different values from those that informed the policies of Mao. And it is this literature that eventually came to form the field of inquiry called educational equity policy research. In the field of higher education, there is only a limited literature that focuses on educational equity policy itself. Most of the available research concentrates on the impact of Chinese higher education policy on educational equity. There is a lack of scholarly research that analyzes the actual production and implementation of higher education policy with regard to educational equity issues. This absence provides an indisputable warrant for the research undertaken in this study. But this absence also led me to turn to education policy studies not well conducted in China for I required a conceptual framework that both encompassed the policy process itself and that paid serious attention to the contexts of policy. It was thus that I turned to policy sociology. As I explain in discussing the main imperatives of policy sociology with its emphasis on the various powerful forces and interests at work in the policy process, Stephen Ball is a key figure. His early ideas on the ‘policy cycle’ became central to my inquiries. My entire study is organized according to Ball’s framework. The core concepts therein are: the ‘context of influence’, the ‘context of policy text production’ and the ‘context of practice’. These provide me with the conceptual resources to analyse various aspects of the ‘policy cycle’ associated with the enrolment expansion policy. In developing my analysis I examine a range of pertinent policy and policy related documents along with interview data from selected policy figures in government and universities. Through my examination of related laws, government documents and government officials’ speeches in the 1990s and 2000s I show that despite the fact that educational equity was very clearly a major issue, it was not a driving imperative. Indeed, I show that before 2003 educational equity values were missing in Chinese education policy making. Instead, economic interests and discourses played a dominant role in building the policy agenda. Through interpreting Chinese political, economic, social and educational contexts of the situation in the later 1990s, I argue that although people from different perspective struggled to influence the definition and social purpose of higher education in the policy agenda building of enrolment expansion, the dominant discourse in these discussions was economic development. Further, this research offers an analysis of the context of policy text production for enrolment expansion in China’s higher education from three different perspectives: policy as text, policy as discourse and policy as social practice. Based on this, in this study I explore: how different values affected the policy text production for enrolment expansion; how the relevant discourses played their dominant roles in the formulation of enrolment expansion policy; and how educational equity values were reflected in the policy text. According to my interpretation of the management system of Chinese higher education, this study provides an analysis of how the policy text of enrolment expansion was reinterpreted and recreated by provincial governments. I argue that how the reinterpretation of policy text could fit for particular provincial contexts on the one hand and avoid policy distortion on other hand was a big challenge for the central and provincial government departments and agencies. In addition, I also discussed the changes of Chinese higher educational equity by comparing the distribution of higher education opportunities before and after 1999. I find that education equity in Chinese higher education is a historical issue. It existed well before 1999. Based on this, I further identify that although the implementation of the enrolment expansion policy objectively promoted Chinese higher educational equity, meanwhile, it really played quite a limited role in resolving higher educational inequity in the past ten years of Chinese higher education development.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Jane Kenway

Additional supervisor 1

Trevor Gale, Zane Ma Rhea

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Monash University. Faculty of Education. Education


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education