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The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China


This article offers an analysis of the educational aspirations of China’s education migrants. These rural youth, who enrol in Chinese universities in great numbers, are often the first in their families to pursue higher education. Thereby, education migrants play an important role in China’s rural–urban transition. Yet these youth continue to be confronted with rural–urban inequalities in Chinese society. This article draws on the framework proposed by Zipin et al. (Educ Philos Theory 47(3):227–246, 2015) to demonstrate how education migrants navigate the gap between the dominant belief that education is a meritocratic vehicle for social mobility and the realities with which they are confronted in the Chinese higher education system. It also suggests how this framework can be adjusted for studies of societies undergoing rapid social transformation. Finally, the article makes a case for bringing together discussions about aspiring youth and debates about the social structures in which young peoples’ aspirations are grounded.


Cet article propose une analyse des aspirations éducatives des Chinois et Chinoises qui migrent pour faire des études. Ces jeunes ruraux, qui s’inscrivent en grand nombre dans les universités chinoises, sont souvent les premiers de leur famille à poursuivre des études supérieures. Les étudiants migrants jouent ainsi un rôle important dans la transition rurale-urbaine de la Chine. Pourtant, ces jeunes restent confrontés aux inégalités rurales-urbaines dans la société chinoise. Cet article s’inspire du cadre proposé par Zipin et al. (2015) pour montrer comment les étudiants migrants gèrent l’écart qui existe entre la croyance dominante selon laquelle les études incarnent le système méritocratique permettant la mobilité sociale et la réalité à laquelle ils font face dans le système d’enseignement supérieur chinois. L’article suggère également la façon dont ce cadre peut être adapté pour les études sur les sociétés en mutation sociale rapide. Enfin, l’article plaide en faveur d’un rapprochement entre les débats sur les jeunes qui ont des aspirations et les débats sur les structures sociales sur lesquelles se fondent leurs aspirations.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    Education migrants are different from examination migrants or gaokao yimin; high-school students who move to locations to improve their access to higher education (e.g. poorer areas with lower score lines). Moreover, education migration itself is not an entirely new phenomenon, as rural students also moved to Chinese cities in the pre-reform and reform era, yet the scale of these migrations has become much larger since the start of the expansion of the Chinese higher education system in 1998.

  2. 2.

    Details about agricultural change in Hubei province are derived from the provincial 13th 5-year plan, the 2018–2020 Specialty Agricultural Produce Development Plan, and the National Strategic Plan for Rural Revitalisation (2018–2022).


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I am grateful to all the education migrants and their family members who welcomed me into their homes and lives, and for financial support from the Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research. I also thank the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and Carole Pearce for her invaluable writing support.

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Correspondence to Willy Sier.

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Sier, W. The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China. Eur J Dev Res 33, 16–34 (2021).

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  • Aspirations
  • China
  • Migration
  • Education
  • Youth