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Education in East Asia
Education in East Asia

Pei-tseng Jenny Hsieh

Pei-tseng Jenny Hsieh is a researcher in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, UK. She has been an education consultant in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and India. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2013

Subjects

Education Level:

Higher Education

Place:

China

Topic:

Access, Finance

Related Content

China: The Role of Independent Colleges in the Expanding Higher Education System

DOI: 10.5040/9781472544452.ch-002
Page Range: 29–48

Introduction

In 2008, the number of students studying in higher education in China reached 29 million, representing a 23 per cent participation rate of the 18–22-year-olds (Ministry of Education, 1978–2009), increasing from the 9 per cent participation rate in 1998. In quantitative terms, during this period the country experienced a dramatic shift from ‘elite’ to ‘mass’ higher education as classified by Trow (1973), and an unprecedented expansion of opportunities for people to participate in higher education.

With the rapid expansion in student numbers came the introduction of a new type of the degree-granting institution. Since 2000 over 300 new independent colleges have been created. During the same period, 172 existing public and private vocational colleges have been promoted to the Benke(the academic track of undergraduate education) level, and dozens of existing public Benke colleges have been granted university status (Ministry of Education, 1978–2009).

The high fee levels charged at independent colleges – at least double the level of public universities and colleges – make independent colleges an expensive option. The lower overall prestige of these institutions compared to their less expensive parent public institutions cannot justify the high level of tuitions. This raises questions that have not been systematically addressed in the literature, about who actually attends these independent colleges. This chapter aims to provide some insights into these issues, through the exploratory study of one case independent institution and through comparing the case institution with three other public and private institutions on students’ characteristics. It will examine whether the independent colleges differ from other types of institutions on the student body. This exploratory study concludes with suggestions for future research.

Given their institutional set-up, independent colleges in China can be regarded as one particular way in which private money is brought into the higher education sector; a challenge faced by many systems around the world. The foundation of independent colleges also represents an example of a government-led reaction to rapidly expanding demand for higher education places – a phenomenon that can be observed in other countries with rapidly growing economies (Altbach, 1999; Levy, 1986b). Therefore, the lessons that can be learnt from the investigation of independent colleges in China seem relevant internationally.

Setting the Scene

The Diversity of Institutions

The Chinese higher education system is complex and comprises various types of institution that offer these study tracks. In this context, the university status/ college status distinction is long established. In 2009, 337 of the 770 registered Benke institutions were named as ‘universities’ and 433 as ‘colleges’ (including public and private institutions, but not independent colleges) (Ministry of Education, 2009a). Whereas a university is usually accredited for postgraduate and doctoral studies, and has a longer history and offers a more comprehensive range of subjects in general, most colleges are only accredited for teaching undergraduate students and focus on particular subjects (State Council, 2002).

However, the distinction according to ownership is a much more recent phenomenon. In China, at present, the ownership of higher education institutions that can enrol Benke students can be categorized into three groups: Gongban(public), Minban(private) and Duli(independent). In the public category, there are public universities and colleges, but so far only colleges are in the private and independent categories because no private or independent college has been approved to offer postgraduate education (with the exception of a few international postgraduate programmes).

A main difference between public and non-public institutions is that public institutions receive general funding from government while non-public institutions do not. Public institutions also collect tuition fees from students (at levels set by the government). Private higher education institutions have been re-emerging since the 1980s, and today they have a significant market share in Zhuanke (the vocational track of undergraduate education) education but are still marginal players in the Benke market. Most of the independent and private colleges rely almost exclusively on tuition fees as income.

The development of independent colleges

Another new type of higher education institution, the independent college, was introduced in 2000 as a measure to increase the supply of higher education places quickly. The underpinning philosophy was that by combining the prestige and teachers of public institutions and the investment of private enterprise, large numbers of high-quality institutions could be established in a short period of time and therefore provide a large quantity of student places. It is also considered as a way of allowing private forces to invest in higher education. These independent colleges are established under the name of a prestigious Mutixuexiao, or (public) parent institutions, but with private funding; the Mutixuexiao may share its teachers and equipment with its independent college to enhance the independent college’s academic expertise. Since all the initial investment and daily running costs come from private sources, rather than public expenditure, independent colleges do not receive governmental funding and therefore can be considered ‘quasi-private’. They are allowed to charge variable tuition fees, not limited by the restrictions applicable to public institutions (Yang, 2003). Through individual arrangements, independent colleges usually pay the Mutixuexiao and their private investors a pre-agreed amount or percentage from the tuition fee income or operating surplus to make financial returns to the Mutixuexiao and investors.

In 2008, 20 per cent of the undergraduate students in China were enrolled in non-public institutions. This figure had doubled since 2004. Of the 20 per cent of students studying in non-public institutions, about half were studying in independent institutions while the other half were studying in private institutions. Most of the students at independent institutions were studying Benke programmes while most students in private institutions were studying Zhuanke programmes. Benke students constituted 84 per cent of the student population in independent institutions but only constituted 10 per cent in private institutions (Yu, Stith, Liu and Chen, 2010), this is primarily because only a small fraction of the private tertiary institutions are accredited to offer Benke programmes. On the other hand, most independent institutions are accredited to offer Benke programmes.

Unlike private institutions, which must develop for a number of years before they can be approved to open Benke courses and confer degrees, independent colleges usually become degree-conferring institutions upon establishment (Hu and Xie, 2003). Since they enjoy the prestige of their Mutixuexiao, but with significantly lower admission requirements on students, their places are in good demand, even though their tuition charges are two or three times higher than those of their Mutixuexiao. Therefore, both private and independent colleges in China mostly fit the demand-absorbing (non-elite) type as classified by Levy (1986a).

As tuition fees at public institutions are kept by the government at a relatively low level, the capacity of public institutions to improve their financial position is severely limited. With the introduction of independent colleges, public institutions have found a way to generate significant and continuous income. Not surprisingly, public institutions were enthusiastic about establishing independent colleges. Within just six years, 2000 to 2006, 318 independent colleges were established. Almost all PhD-granting public institutions have established independent colleges, and many have established more than one (Ministry of Education, 2009b).

In the past, some independent colleges were established by Mutixuexiaos themselves through their business arm without an outside private investor and using the Mutixuexiao’s campus and facilities, teaching staff, enrolment quota and/or financial accounts, and conferred degrees in the name of the Mutixuexiao, while charging higher fees than the parent institution. This practice has been prohibited by regulations implemented in 2003, and today independent colleges are expected to meet a range of regulatory requirements which include having their own ‘campus and educational facilities, implementing relatively independent organisation and management of teaching, recruiting students independently, conferring study certificates independently, maintaining independent financial accounts, and having independent legal status’ (Ministry of Education, 2003). However, the ‘private investor’ of some independent colleges today is actually a company that is owned by its co-operating Mutixuexiao, or in some cases, the local government, therefore, these colleges are de facto entirely publicly owned. Although these independent colleges are in this sense ‘public’ institutions, the state regulations have made no provision for this indirect public ownership and therefore it seems that the government has tacitly approved this practice (Yang, 2003).

For prospective students, the crucial difference the new regulations have made is that degrees have to be conferred by the independent colleges themselves, rather than by the Mutixuexiao. This reduces the attractiveness of the degrees to students to a certain extent, as the full institutional title indicates that it is an independent college, which is known to impose lower admission requirements than the Mutixuexiao. However, the Mutixuexiaos’ names are still included in the independent colleges’ names, for example, Zhejiang University City College, which is the independent college of the highly prestigious Zhejiang University.

As public universities are often organized into subject or administrative units that are referred to as ‘colleges’ or ‘schools’ (or xueyuan in Chinese), people outside academia, or even within academia, are often unable to distinguish between a regular college (as a unit of the university) and an independent college. Therefore, it can be assumed that in the eyes of many not directly involved in higher education, independent colleges are considered to have a superior reputation to normal private institutions, as an independent college bears the name of an established institution. This situation has contributed to the attractiveness of independent colleges among students. Students who were admitted to an independent college hoping to gain a qualification from the prestigious Mutixuexiao were disappointed by the regulatory changes introduced in 2003 and many students were therefore opposed these changes. The fierce opposition from independent college students against the changes brought about by the new regulations of 2003 is an indication of the, arguably undeserved, reputational advantage of independent colleges ( The Economist, 2006).

Institutional status and fee levels

In terms of institutional prestige, most of the expansion within the higher education system has taken place in its lower echelons, that is to say, in the lower-level public institutions and the newly emerged private and independent institutions. The ‘elite university’ schemes in China, the ‘985’ project (to build a number of ‘world-class’ and ‘world-renowned’ universities) and ‘211’ project (to strengthen 100 of the most prestigious institutions and certain key fields of study), have greatly strengthened the elite status of a relatively small number of public institutions (Ministry of Education, 2004a, 2004b).

Although the newly established independent and private colleges in general enjoy less prestige than public institution, they charge substantially higher fees. According to relevant national and provincial guidelines, the maximum fee levels for independent colleges are usually two to three times higher than for public universities and colleges. For example, for most Benke subjects in arts and humanities, science, and engineering, the tuition fees at public institutions range from ¥4500 to ¥6000 (equivalent of US$676 to US$901) per annum depending on the subject and province, but at independent colleges the fee levels range from ¥8000 to ¥20,000 (US$1202 to US$3006) depending on subject and institution, with an average of around ¥12,000 (US$1803) (CUAA, 2008b). Private institutions are usually free to set their own fee levels but still need to report to the educational and price control bureaux and sometimes need to gain approval from the authorities (see, for instance, Guangdong Prices Bureau, 2003). According to a survey, the fee levels at private colleges range from ¥5600 TO ¥16,000 (US$841 to US$2404) per annum, depending on subject and institution, with an average of around ¥11,000 (US$1653) (CUAA, 2008a).

The literature on independent colleges before 2006 mainly concentrated on the property rights of the institutions (Xu, 2004; Qin and Wang, 2005; Zhu, 2004) and on the context and rationale of independent colleges (Pan and Wu, 2004). After 2006, when a large number of independent colleges had been created, the research topics had been diversified and there have been studies on curriculum, library services, internationalization, personnel and almost every aspect of the independent institutions (Dai and You, 2006; Li, 2007; Mu and Yang, 2010; Wei and Han, 2010). However, the existing studies on the students and curricula of independent colleges often focus on independent colleges as individual institutions, and not in comparison with other public and private institutions (Li, 2007). There has been little understanding of students and education at independent colleges in relation to other types of institutions.

Case study

Scope and methods

The international academic community has had constant interest in private higher education in China ever since it re-emerged after the establishment of the communist government in 1949. A considerable number of articles published in English language journals have studied private higher education in China (Law, 1995; Levy, 1999; Lin, 2004; Mok, 1999; Yan and Levy, 2003; Yin and White, 1994). However, independent colleges have often been overlooked in the studies of private higher education. None of the above-mentioned studies have looked at independent colleges, even though in terms of the number of degree-granting institutions and the number of degree-seeking students, the independent college group is much larger than the private college group. This is partly due to the fact that independent colleges are a relatively new phenomenon, but the ambiguity of the ownership status of independent colleges may also have contributed to this situation.

Therefore, although independent colleges take a significant share in the higher education market in China, very little is known about their students, especially in comparison to their Mutixuexiao, and to other public and private institutions. A small-scale exploratory study was therefore conducted with the hope that its findings would shed light on the issue.

This investigation is an exploratory study into students’ characteristics at one independent college in relation to other types of institutions. The sampling of these institutions deliberately included the four major ownership and qualification level types outlined earlier, and the four institutions selected are referred to in this study as Independent College, Public University, Public College and Private College. The study explores differences and similarities between these higher education institutions and offers potential explanations for them.

The Independent College is affiliated with the Public University in the study and was officially granted independent college status in 2003. As an approved independent college, it manages its campus, financial accounts and legal matters independent of the Public University. The Independent College is, in fact, owned by the business arm of the Public University and was moved to one of the Public University’s old campuses after a new one was built for the Mutixuexiao. This is not an unusual scenario among independent colleges. The Public University, which is the Mutixuexiao of the Independent College, is considered to be the flagship university in the province under study. Like most other institutions of its size and status, it offers undergraduate and graduate courses that encompass virtually all academic subject fields. The tuition fees, as with all public universities and colleges in the country, are set by the administering authority, in this case the provincial government. The Public College was founded in the 1950s as a vocational college and was promoted to the Benke level in 2003. The college traditionally focused on engineering subjects, but has expanded to include English, economics, management, literature, science and agriculture in recent years. The Private College was established in the 1990s and promoted to Benke level in 2005. However, the vast majority of the Private College’s students are enrolled in Zhuanke programmes. Although the government quota for the Benke enrolment of this Private College has been growing steadily since 2005, it started from a very small base and is still small compared to that at other institutions in this respect. The Private College itself determines its tuition levels. These characteristics are in line with other private colleges in the country. Table 2.1 presents the enrolment sizes and tuition charges of the four institutions.

Table 2.1. Sample institutions: Benke enrolment and tuition charges for representative programmes

Institution

Enrolment Quota in 2008

Tuition Fees for English Language Programme per annum

Tuition Fees for Computer Science Programme per annum

Independent College

3000

¥8000 (US$1202)

¥10,000 (US$1503)

Public University

9000

¥4950 (US$743)

¥5500 (US$826)

Public College

2000

¥4950 (US$743)

¥5500 (US$826)

Private College

800

¥8000 (US$1202)

¥10,000 (US$1503)


The major limitation of this method, as with all case studies, is its small sample size, which affects the quality of the representativeness of the data. However, since no studies of this kind exist, it is appropriate to conduct an exploratory study even with a small sample of institutions.

The study conducted a survey of students to gather factual and perceptual data. The data was collected with a sample of students, specifically those in their third year (of four-year programmes) and those studying in two Benke disciplines, namely engineering and languages, as these were the largest disciplines in the surveyed institutions.

The survey was conducted on-site at the institutions in a classroom setting. Questionnaires were distributed to students at their evening self-study sessions, with permission from their teacher and the director of studies at each institution. This direct contact with students helped to yield a high response rate: 1,345 questionnaires were distributed to students of the four institutions, and of these, 1,264 non-empty questionnaires were returned, representing a response rate of about 94 per cent. At the same time, students were assured of their anonymity and it was ensured that teachers did not put any pressure on students to fill in the questionnaire. Participation was voluntary; they were able to withdraw without penalty, and any information provided was not related to their institutional records in any way. The study results will be shown in summary form only and the institutions and course tutors do not have access to any individual responses provided by students taking part in the study.

Gaokao score

Gaokao, the National College Entrance Examination, is the principal route for students to access state-recognized on-campus higher education in China. An examination of the Gaokao scores of the students can indicate the selectivity and to some extent the reputation of an institution. As a result of the national requirement, every student in this survey took Gaokao before entering higher education.

Since many provinces design and implement their own examinations, the test contents and evaluation standards vary between provinces. This makes the comparison of Gaokao scores between provinces problematic. Because most of the students at these four institutions are from the local province, this section considers Gaokao results only from local students. It is possible that institutions’ quality of student intake varies between provinces, but in general these variations are considered to be small, and the quality of student intake in the local province can be seen as fairly representative of the institutions overall.

In most provinces, students need to choose their track of study while still in senior secondary school, usually in the second year, or two years before graduation. Most students choose between natural science (Like) and social science (Wenke) tracks. Students in different tracks take different classes and different Gaokao test subjects. Because the test subjects are different, it is not possible to directly compare the Gaokao scores between tracks. As a result, colleges and universities usually set different admission standards for natural science and social science students.

Of the analytical sample, a total of 719 students indicated that they were from within the province, of whom 619 provided their Gaokao score and Gaokao track. Table 2.2 presents the Gaokao score of the respondents, grouped by Gaokao track and institution. The scores are classified into four groups: above 549, 500 to 549, 450 to 499, and below 450.

Table 2.2 shows that the four institutions had different distributions of Gaokao scores. The Independent College admitted students with lower scores than that of the Public University and Public College, but with similar scores to that of the Private College. This trend was evident in both the natural science and social science tracks.

For both Gaokao tracks, almost all (99 per cent and 100 per cent) of the Public University’s students had a Gaokao score of 500 or higher. The Public College’s distribution of student scores was somewhat lower than that of the Public University, but was still concentrated in the higher ranges: around 75 per cent students in the natural science track and 65 per cent students in the social science track had a score of 500 or higher.

Table 2.2. Survey respondents’ Gaokao scores, by Gaokao track and institution

Track of Gaokao (Gaokao Score Range)

Institution

Independent College

Public University

Private College

Public College

Total

Natural Science

Above 549

43.9%

.8%

3.3%

9.2%

500–549

4.9%

55.1%

2.5%

72.7%

29.4%

450–499

89.6%

1.0%

94.3%

20.7%

58.1%

Below 450

5.5%

2.5%

3.3%

3.3%

Social Science

Above 549

33.3%

3.8%

11.5%

500–549

66.7%

17.9%

61.5%

42.7%

450–499

100.0%

82.1%

30.8%

44.8%

Below 450

3.8%

1.0%


The figures suggest that the Independent College, along with the Private College, mainly enrol those who do not make the cut-off for admission to public institutions, while the public institutions mainly cater for high achievers. Previously these low-achieving students would have been denied access to higher education due to the limited places available in the public institutions. The Gaokao scores of the student intake is certainly one factor in the status of different types of institutions. Independent colleges charge higher levels of fees and impose lower admission requirements to students. This indicates that the creation of independent colleges has increased the supply of higher education places through providing opportunities mainly to those with lower Gaokao scores.

Where students come from

In the questionnaire, students were asked to indicate the type of the place they come from. Students were requested to select one of five categories, namely Shenghui Chengshi/Zhi Xiashi (provincial capital or municipality), Dijishi (prefecture-level city), Xianjishi, Xiangzhen (township) and Nongcun (rural area).

As seen in Figure 2.1, the Independent College under study recruits more students from urban areas than the other institutions. Its intake of students from rural areas was significantly lower than at the other three institutions. At the Independent College, students from rural

Figure 2.1. Where students come from, by institution

areas accounted for just 18.3 per cent, while at the Public University and Public College, students from rural areas accounted for 29.6 per cent and 24.2 per cent respectively, and the Private College had the largest percentage of students from rural areas at 37.6 per cent.

This is significant, since the rural–urban divide in China is stark and closely correlated not only with the educational achievements of students at high school level (with students at urban high schools on average achieving higher Gaokao scores) but also with family income levels (with families in rural areas being overall poorer than families in urban areas) (Lu, 2002, 2004). The average disposable income of urban households per capita is ¥15,780 and the average net income of rural households per capita is ¥4760 in 2008 (Yu, Stith, Liu and Chen, 2010). According to the national statistics, in 2005, 57 per cent of the Chinese population were rural residents. In the fieldwork base province, over 60 per cent of the population resided in rural areas (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2005).

Parental education

Of the analytical sample, 1191 respondents (94.2 per cent) indicated their father’s educational level, and 1187 (93.9 per cent) provided their mother’s educational level.

Table 2.3, above, shows that most of the students in the sample were first generation higher education students. This is consistent with the

Table 2.3. Father’s education level, by institution

Institution (% within Institution)

Independent College

Public University

Private College

Public College

Total

Father’s Education Level

Postgraduate

1.1%

1.7%

0.4%

0.3%

0.9%

Undergraduate – Benke

5.5%

6.1%

1.3%

4.8%

4.6%

Undergraduate – Zhuanke

12.1%

8.5%

2.1%

14.3%

9.8%

Senior Secondary School

42.2%

30.6%

27.8%

42.2%

36.5%

Junior Secondary School

24.7%

35.0%

39.3%

22.9%

29.6%

Primary School

7.2%

10.2%

17.9%

7.6%

10.2%

No Formal Education

7.2%

7.8%

11.1%

7.9%

8.3%

Total

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%


fact that universities and colleges in China only resumed enrolment in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution, and the number of students enrolled was quite small in the earlier years. This was about the time when many of the parents of current university students were themselves at university-entering age.

The university participation rate in the late 1970s and earlier 1980s is estimated to be 5 per cent or lower nationally, and so the father’s educational level of students at the Public University, Independent College and Public College was many times higher than the average in the overall national population.

Broadly speaking, the parents of Independent College students had the strongest educational backgrounds in the four institutions, and the parents of Private College students had on average the weakest; the Public University and Public College’s profiles were somewhere between the two, but much closer to the Independent College. The trend in mothers’ educational levels was broadly similar to the trend of fathers’ educational level at the four institutions. The difference was that, in general, mothers’ educational level appeared to be lower than fathers’ educational level.

Parental occupation

The questionnaire adopted the ten-class scale developed by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Lu, 2002, 2004) and asked students to choose their parental occupations from the scale. The scale is based on occupation. Although there is no absolute connection of occupation and socioeconomic status, in general it is considered that an occupation higher in the scale corresponds to higher socioeconomic status. Of the analytical sample, 1185 respondents (93.7 per cent) indicated their father’s occupation and 1172 (92.7 per cent) provided a valid answer to the mother’s occupation item.

The father’s occupation figures were again consistent with the previous results on family residence and parents’ educational background: on average, the Independent College father’s socioeconomic status was higher than at the other three institutions, particularly the Private College. Compared with fathers of students at the Private College, fathers of students at the Independent College were 9.5 times more likely to be managers in a business, four times more likely to be administrative personnel at a public authority, twice as likely to be clerks

Table 2.4. Father’s occupation of the survey respondents, by institution

Institution (% within Institution)

Private College

Public University

Independent College

Public College

Total

Father’s Occupation

Public Authority Administrative

1.3%

3.8%

5.2%

7.6%

4.7%

Managerial

.4%

1.0%

3.8%

1.9%

1.9%

Public Authority Clerk

6.9%

11.3%

14.0%

14.2%

12.0%

Professional

3.0%

4.4%

3.5%

4.4%

3.9%

Home/Small Business Owner

8.6%

8.9%

12.8%

5.7%

9.1%

Staff in Business/ Service Industry

2.1%

1.4%

2.0%

.6%

1.5%

Private Business Owner

6.0%

6.1%

6.4%

4.7%

5.8%

Industrial Worker

13.7%

12.3%

11.1%

12.7%

12.3%

Farmer-worker

9.9%

4.4%

2.3%

6.6%

5.5%

Farmer

36.9%

32.8%

20.7%

28.5%

28.9%

Retired

2.1%

3.1%

2.0%

3.5%

2.7%

Unemployed

6.4%

6.8%

9.9%

4.1%

6.9%

Other

2.6%

3.8%

6.1%

5.4%

4.6%

Total

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%


at a public authority, and 48 per cent more likely to run a home/small business, while fathers of students at the Private College were more likely to be industrial workers, off-farm workers or farmers.

Fathers of students at the Independent College were more likely to be unemployed than fathers at other institutions. However, being unemployed does not necessarily indicate low socioeconomic status; in fact, it could imply that the person has income from other business, family or personal channels to support them without the need to work, and in this case unemployment actually means high economic status.

The trend of mothers’ occupation was broadly similar to the trend of fathers’ occupation. The difference was that, in general, mothers’ socioeconomic status in terms of occupation seemed to be somewhat lower than fathers’ occupation.

Concerns about finance

The fee-paying ability item in the questionnaire asked whether students were concerned about their or their family’s ability to finance their current education. Of the analytical sample, 1,143 respondents (90.4 per cent) gave a valid answer to this question.

The differences in socioeconomic background of students are also reflected in the levels of concern students have with regard to the cost of their studies. Despite the fact that students of independent colleges pay significantly higher tuitions, their levels of financial concern are not higher than for students studying at the two public institutions which charge much lower fees. However, students at the Private College are on average much more concerned about finances: although the four institutions have similar proportions of students who are ‘somewhat concerned about finance’, 45 per cent of students at the Private College state that they are very concerned about their cost of their studies, which is double the level of concern of students at the other three institutions (see Figure 2.2 below).

This means that the higher level of tuition fees at the non-public institutions does not affect students at the Independent College because of their better-off family background, whereas for students at the Private College fee levels are a real concern.

Discussion and Conclusions

An interesting pattern has emerged from the findings: the Independent College seems to attract lower-achieving students from wealthy backgrounds. This

Figure 2.2. Survey respondents’ concerns about finances, by institution

differs markedly from the Private College which also attracts low-achieving students but from significantly poorer backgrounds. This may be because the wealthier urban applicants have better information and prefer to enrol in independent colleges that have the ‘good name’ of their parent institution.

Further investigation shows that, compared with the Private College, the Independent College has a higher proportion of students who applied to their college as their first choice. Over 50 per cent of the Independent College students chose this independent college as their ‘first choice’ in their selection of institutions, but for Private College students the figure was less than 15 per cent. This suggests that the Independent College students are more likely to be lower achieving but wealthy students who decided to enrol in expensive independent colleges in the first place, while the Private College students are more likely to be lower achieving and poorer students who initially applied to a cheaper public institution but were forced to go to the more expensive Private College because of their failure to meet the admission requirements of that public institution.

The data from this exploratory case study show that institutions of different types, as classified by ownership and prestige, have very different student compositions. This finding has important implications. With regard to issues of equity, it suggests that low-achieving students from wealthier backgrounds can exercise more choices.

The creation of independent colleges could therefore be regarded as disproportionately beneficial to students from higher socioeconomic groups. The ability to exercise choice depends on the possession of economic, social and cultural capital which is disproportionately held by higher socioeconomic groups (see Reay et al., 2005).

The recent establishment of independent colleges has resulted in a significant new ‘non-public’ sector in higher education in China. However, in terms of programme provision and student experience, research indicates that the new types of institutions seem to operate in a way that does not differ substantially from either the public college or the public university (Yu, 2010). Existing literature compared the educational orientation, curriculum structure, course offerings and students’ experience of learning, and concluded that few systematic differences could be found between different types of institutions. Where there are differences, there are greater differences between disciplines within institutions than within disciplines between institutions (Yu, 2010). In a seminal study that analyzed the structure, function and changes of private higher education in eight countries, Geiger (1986) developed a taxonomic, analytic description of the functions of the private sector of higher education. He identified three roles for private higher education providers: providing more, different, or better higher education. Levy suggests that private higher education is often, but not always, about something different and innovative; due to isomorphism, private higher education may closely resemble public higher education and fail to contribute diversity to the system. The literature has pointed out that the rationales and functions of the private higher education sector are highly dependent on higher education policies (Levy, 1986; Zumeta, 1992). For instance, the government may require private providers to conform to the model of the public institution, an action Levy terms ‘coercive modelling’, which serves as a significant source of homogeneity (Levy, 1999, p. 24). This is considered to be the case for the independent institutions: they face limitations in their ability to be distinctive, most notably in ways that the government is not inclined to approve.

It appears that the establishment of independent institutions in China primarily served the goal of providing more spaces in higher education, though independent colleges’ features of reputation and high tuition fees have attracted a different group of students than those at existing public and private institutions. Although the introduction of independent colleges has added diversity to the institutional structure of higher education in China, the purpose was not to offer a different kind of education.

For all the ideological notions associated with the distinctiveness of private and independent institutions, it appears that much of the practical drive for establishing these institutions concerns a desire to reduce the costs for government, and to increase revenue for public institutions, rather than to promote educational diversity. The hierarchy of reputation of different types of Benke institutions implies that the sector reflects many of the features of Teichler’s (2007) ‘vertical’ form of diversity, with strong differences in the reputation of the institutions, but not many of the features of the ‘horizontal’ form of diversity.

These complexities highlight some of the difficulties of establishing a quasi-private higher education sector when a system attempts to attract private capital. The establishment of independent colleges in China can also be regarded as an attempt to introduce market forces into the system. This exploratory case study reveals consequences which can provide valuable lessons for policy initiatives in other countries.

This study has shed light on the distinctiveness of independent colleges as compared with other types of institutions in student compositions. Future studies of these independent colleges should more systematically assess the impact of independent college education on students as compared with other types of institutions, and extend the study to a larger and more diverse sample of public, independent and private institutions, as well as to a more diverse set of disciplines and subjects. Such research would help to facilitate a more in-depth understanding of independent colleges in China.

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