Concept of the Week: Leftover Students

Leftover students – concept – that group of high school graduates in China who aspire to higher education – and who appear to have the ability to complete a degree – but who are denied that education and the attendant social mobility by China’s limited university seats and the caprice of the gaokao.

Leta Hong Fincher has done an incredible job framing and documenting the phenomenon of “leftover women” in China, explaining the roots of the phenomenon and the challenges facing women who have, for all the best of reasons, passed what serves as a marriageable age, or who have careers that make finding a suitable spouse all but impossible. If you have not picked up her book, by all means do so. As you would expect, the work does more than simply describe a unique demographic: it also offers an insight into an underlying dynamic of China’s winner-take-all culture: the leftovers.

Indeed, riffing on Leta’s research, it is not hard to discern that unmarried women of a certain age are not the only leftovers in China. Last week saw this year’s administration of the gaokao, China’s national university entrance examination. Nine million students sat for the three-day exam this year, but there are seats in China’s universities for no more than three million. While some of those who fail to gain entrance in university will try again next year, we can count on over five million young people facing a future without a university education.

These “leftover students” are a challenge for China’s leaders and an opportunity for international educators. For the Communist Party, it is no small thing to say to six million families a year that the promise of a better life for their children through education is out of reach: every four years that tallies a population equal to the membership of the Party that has often invested its hopes and treasure into the promise of education, only to have it tossed back to them.

For tertiary educators around the world, many of whom are suffering from secular population and economic trends that are pushing enrollments downwards, leftover students represent an massive pool of potential enrollees, many from prosperous families, that could save and sustain many of the world’s less popular colleges and universities, and that could potentially fuel the creation of the world’s largest market for continuing education.