Striving for More Quality Education for Rural Students: The Case of China during the COVID-19 Pandemic

by | Sep 15, 2020

Globally, COVID-19 has worsened the access to education for children from low-income families and those who live in rural areas. The effect of the pre-existing digital divide between rural and urban areas in China has intensified educational inequality as children from rural areas are less likely to have access to internet and digital devices and do not have the same level of support from their families.

Based on interviews with students from both urban and rural China, this blogpost, written by Yao Bowen, a master student in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, seeks to uncover the specific problems encountered by rural education in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic, inspire solutions to mitigate the existing policy gap, and secure a more equitable future of receiving quality education for children living in rural China.

This piece is part of our Student Contributions series. Find out how to contribute here. Student Contributions are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the opinion of The Futures Project.


Educational inequality has been commonplace in China since the 1980s when China’s education system was decentralized, both administratively and financially. This came as a result of economic reforms and the open-door policy in the late 1970s. Although decentralization meant that more resources could be mobilized in wealthier regions (mostly the urban ones), it also meant that regions with scarce resources like the rural areas have since faced greater disadvantages in their education systems as compared to those in the urban areas.

In China, the dissimilarity of educational attainment is based on place of birth As the years progress, younger cohorts experience greater dissimilarity in their educational attainment between the rural provinces and Beijing, an archetypal urban region. These findings were echoed in another 2010 study that revealed a real rural-urban divide in China’s education system, which has affected the final labor-market return to education of the rural citizens in China, meaning the earnings from people’s human capital in rural areas are systematically lower than those in urban areas. The gap of return to education between rural and urban Chinese was greater as years of schooling decreased, reaching its peak with primary education. This could mean employers prefer hiring those educated in urban areas as well as having a willingness to pay employees from urban areas more. Systemically, educational inequality contributes to income inequality in the long run – making the need to reduce it even greater.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in December 2019, the education system in China has been severely disrupted. Responding to the crisis, the Chinese central government implemented the policy of “Suspending Lessons without Stopping Learning  ” in February 2020, a policy that prioritizes creating home-based learning experience without adding additional burdens for students. A variety of home-grown online platforms have been introduced and adopted in the majority of schools to facilitate remote teaching. The efforts have been proven to be a success with more than 90 percent of students, teachers and parents reporting that online teaching has been running smoothly in a survey conducted in February 2020. Nevertheless, students, teachers and parents of primary and middle schoolers in rural China have reported challenges in terms of accessing full-scale online learning and receiving parental support.

Firstly, there are difficulties for the rural students in getting access to the infrastructure that they need to benefit from home-based learning. According to the Director of China Unicom Research Institute , the majority of rural population in China still lack comprehensive ICT infrastructure required to support online learning due to the poor connection in remote areas, the lack of affordability of electronic devices, or simply their limited knowledge about and interest in internet. Furthermore, some rural children may lack parental support, especially for the left-behind children whose parents work in cities for most of their time. Their grandparents living with them, instead, mostly use “phones for the elders”, a type of non-smart phone which cannot satisfy the various online needs of students. Some rural families have more than one child, and thus one mobile phone cannot meet the needs of several children. Furthermore, students in most rural areas are often confronted with technical problems such as unstable internet signals, disconnected distractions, crashes during live streaming and so on. Some rural students still cannot afford to equip and operate ordinary Wi-Fi at home and only use data to surf the internet. However, when they need to use the Internet for a long time (as they do for online courses), these students can only borrow their neighbors’ Wi-Fi. The efficiency thus is greatly affected by the slow internet speed caused by many people accessing the Internet at the same time.

Photographs showing the differences between rural and urban infrastructure for home-based learning. 

Source: all photos were taken by the author except the one at top right which is from NBTV





Secondly, rural students sometimes experience distractions during home-based learning. As the mode of online teaching in rural China tends to be asynchronous, in which materials are distributed out to the students to work on at their own time, students do not get to interact online with their teachers and therefore, could experience helplessness, loneliness and isolation from their classmates. Many rural students are more easily distracted due to the superposition of various interference factors and lack of parental supervision. This is especially difficult for rural children whose parents leave to urban cities as migrant workers. Thus, the efficiency of class is much lower among rural students than among urban students. Additionally, since assessment was done at home, rural teachers had no way to ascertain if there was cheating.

For both rural or urban students, home-based learning brought along a sense of loneliness and depression due to the lack of face-to-face interactions with teachers and classmates. This kind of loss is, however, more pronounced for some rural students, as they lacked the company of their parents or friends since they do not have digital connectivity.

Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a larger emotional toll on rural students. The common way for students to dispel feelings of loss and frustration during the pandemic was to seek help from classmates. Rural classmates often come from the same village and spend time together almost every day doing homework or playing together in their spare time. However, such daily chats are not possible after the COVID-19 outbreak because some students do not have smartphones. Students spend more time at home during the pandemic, therefore the caregivers play a more significant role than offline learning. Most students choose to confide in their classmates rather than their parents as they can find more emotional resonance from their peers. In most cases, parents cannot understand students’ troubles well due to the generation gap, which is particularly prominent among left-behind children in rural areas as the caregivers are the grandparents and they are usually too old and detached from the modern context to understand some of the issues experienced by the youths. Jointly, the three challenges have substantially threatened the fundamental human of children in rural China right on accessing equitable education.

The COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated educational inequality due to the pre-existing digital divide in China. For rural students, the problem they face is not only to overcome temptation to improve their learning efficiency. More often, they need to overcome the poor physical environment and family conditions, including poor learning environment and equipment, weak peer support and family support, etc. Policy makers of China are urged to come up with solutions to further improve on policy implementation at the grassroots level. Ultimately, the aim of equipping students with digital skills should be to make them more relevant to the fourth industrial revolution as critical thinkers, complex problem-solvers and creative learners – which are within the tops skills of the World Economic Forum in 2020.