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Higher Education Expansion and Earnings Premium: A Comparative Study of Two Systems in China

Jin Jiang and Hon-Kwong Lui
p. 63-73


Tertiary education in the Chinese mainland has undergone unprecedented expansion since 1999, whereas the most recent expansion in Hong Kong was announced in 2000. Confucian philosophy, prevalent among ethnic Chinese, suggests that education is a fair qualification for selecting elites for high-paid jobs. However, economic structures and popular cultures differ considerably. This article examines the economic returns of a rapid expansion of higher education in two areas, Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, with different economic systems but the same cultural heritage, i.e., the Confucian philosophy and its work culture. The results support the view that the declining quality of university graduates is the prime reason for shrinking earnings premium in both systems. The governments should revisit the policies of higher education development and shift the emphasis from quantity to quality, and quality assurance in particular. There is a global trend to establish a quality assurance framework to oversee higher education, and a similar development is observed in the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong.

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Editor’s notes

Manuscript received on 21 June 2021. Accepted on 31 August 2023.


Full text document will be published online on March 2025.


Comparative cultural institutions and education systems: A brief review
Literature review and hypotheses
Quantitative approach
Qualitative approach
Research gaps
Research methods
Higher education pays off after the expansion
Declining earnings premiums of fresh graduates
Large differences in earnings premium between young and older cohorts
Conclusion and discussion

First lines


After the global expansion of elementary and secondary schools in the 1950s (Meyer, Ramirez, and Soysal 1992), the higher education sector worldwide has experienced dramatic growth in recent decades (Schofer and Meyer 2005). Although the expansion of higher education seems to be a global trend, such expansion is less common in Asia (Hayhoe 1995; Neubauer, Mok, and Jiang 2017). Nevertheless, some East Asian economies, such as Japan and South Korea, recorded rapid expansions in higher education in the late twentieth century (Hannum et al. 2019).

Similarly, the Chinese mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Hong Kong, hereafter) embarked on an aggressive expansionary programme in higher education in the last few decades (Jung and Postiglione 2015; Jiang 2017). The Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (MOE) issued in late 1998 the Action Plan for Vitalising Education in the Twenty-first Century, which stated that the government would inc...

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Bibliographical reference

Jin Jiang and Hon-Kwong Lui, Higher Education Expansion and Earnings Premium: A Comparative Study of Two Systems in China China Perspectives, 136 | 2024, 63-73.

Electronic reference

Jin Jiang and Hon-Kwong Lui, Higher Education Expansion and Earnings Premium: A Comparative Study of Two Systems in China China Perspectives [Online], 136 | 2024, Online since 01 March 2025, connection on 14 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jin Jiang and Hon-Kwong Lui

Jin Jiang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University, Kowloon Tong, Kowloon, Hong Kong ( Lui (corresponding author) is Professor in the Department of Marketing and International Business at Lingnan University, Tuen Mun, Hong Kong (

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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