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Why Poverty: China's Ant People

Updated Thursday, 6th September 2012

In this video, discover the surprising figures and stories of education in China following its burst in economic development 

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China’s Generation X


In this video we’ll find out whether China’s educational system is keeping up with its economic development over the last ten years.  We’ll be using the UN Development Programme’s Public Data Explorer tool to look at this.

The Chinese place great value on education and will suffer hardship to ensure their children receive a good education.  As income levels have increased in China aspirations have kept pace and now parents aspire to secure a university education for their children, which they believe will deliver a high paid job.  Let’s explore how incomes and access to education have risen in China through the United Nations Development Programme dataset.  We can see from this Google docs table drawn from the UNDP dataset that the average number of years of schooling has more than doubled over the past 30 years.  A more visually interesting way of representing this story of tremendous human development over a couple of generations in China is to look at China’s scores on the Human Development Index.  What we’re doing here is deselecting the default countries and just selecting China.

The Human Development Index is one of the most widely used indicators for measuring development in a country.  It measures the average achievements of a country for three dimensions: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.  The data from the three dimensions, health, education and income, is merged to produce one value for each country.  The scores range from zero to one.  A country with a poor HDI or poor human development will be nearer zero, and a country with a good HDI or good human development will be nearer one.  We can see how China fares against all other countries with each coloured line representing a country and China the green line highlighted.  The first graph is the Human Development Index, the composite index.  The other three graphs show each of the three dimensions of HDI separately: education, health and income.

Looking first at the graph for education, what is noticeable is that improvements in education are largely consistent with general trends of improvement for other countries.  You can establish this by looking at the angle of the slope of China’s line, which follows the trend of slope for other countries.  This shows China’s improvements in education are good, but not outstanding.  If we now look at the last graph, which looks at improvements in income, China’s performance is outstanding.  The slope for China is sharply steeper than the trend for other countries.  This reveals the income of Chinese citizens has grown more sharply than improvements in education.  Let’s have a look at data from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.  Please note the large yellow circle in the top right hand corner of this graph represents India.

With the income of Chinese citizens growing more sharply than improvements in education a premium has been placed on education, because where a country is growing fast competition for well-paying jobs is likely to be intense.  The extra income that Chinese families have is used to fund the best education they can afford for their children.  Also the one child policy that China introduced in 1978 has meant that the hopes and aspirations of couples rest on a single pair of young shoulders.  Parents aspire for their child to get a well-paying job and to become middle class.  Strong economic growth and this pent-up desire has led the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development to project that in 2030 China will have a bigger middle class than the US and that India will have a bigger middle class than China.  This means getting a well-paid job with a university degree is the dream of millions of Chinese parents and their child.  They know it can promise a comfortable lifestyle as well as a huge boost in social standing for the family.  China is a society that is very concerned with status, the majority of families having worked the land as peasants a few generations back.

Let’s play this animation again.  As we can see these aspirations are likely to be compromised, if not dashed, because of the growing difficulties graduates are having in securing well-paid middle class jobs.  This is causing many families much anxiety, which is exacerbated by fear around paying off student loans.  But this is not caused solely by the current economic downturn, there’s evidence that China expanded its higher education provision too quickly as these tables from the UNESCO website show.  Look at the first column under universities and colleges.  China had almost four times the number of students enrolled in universities and colleges in 2006 compared to 1997.  Similarly, as the column to the far right of this graph shows, in 1997 just under 10% of the population aged 18 to 22 were enrolled in university or college.  In 2006 this had risen to 22%.

The Chinese authorities were eager to move up the economic ladder away from low skilled factory jobs to highly skilled service jobs.  In an economy where only 6% of the population have a degree it can be argued they felt this was a pressing priority.  As this Guardian article shows growth rates have now slipped and the globe is in recession.  The growth in the number of graduates could become a headache for the Chinese government.  These educated, aspirational and indebted young people could start to demand a livelihood commensurate with their skills and agitate for change.  How the Chinese government respond to these demands will need to be watched.

What do you think about the insights revealed by these stats?  Visit the OpenLearn site to share your views and see credits and links for all sources used in this video.





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