There has always been a deep and abiding history of philanthropic support for education in China.
In Asia, education tops the type of projects that philanthropists tend to fund. While this is true in China also, there are idiosyncratic aspects of educational philanthropy which are important to understand. Our research shows how connectivity with government goals, support for higher education and the propensity to fund in one’s hometown are key characteristics of Chinese educational philanthropy.
In the third report of CAPS’ four-part series China Issue Guide study, we look at individual and corporate giving to support education at all levels. Based on data obtained from over 5,600 annual foundation reports from 2017-2018, education projects accounted for 45.6 per cent of all projects, accounting for RMB 31.85 billion in funding (see Table 1). Using keyword identification, the number of projects with an educational component jumps to 60.2 per cent.
The types of education projects that enjoy the most support can be seen within education philanthropy. According to our data, 41 per cent of the projects are in higher education, 24 per cent in compulsory education, and seven per cent in high school education. Support for higher education is not surprising. After achieving success in business, many Chinese philanthropists believe that education is the key to building a nation. A study indicates that major donations to universities from 2015 to 2020 totalled ¥30.3 billion, with 81 per cent of funding coming from the private sector.
Characteristics of Chinese educational philanthropy
As we identified in previous issue guides, educational philanthropy also exhibits some of the characteristics of Chinese philanthropy. First, philanthropists align their giving with government programs and initiatives by supporting certain education areas, such as building out quality education for all. Education can be used to alleviate poverty and revitalize rural areas, improve universities, provide scholarships, and support programmatic initiatives for cultivating national values and goals.
There is also a tendency to apply business skills to viable solutions in program design and implementation of educational projects. Philanthropy’s role as an innovative source of solutions in education is also prominent. The award-winning project Parenting the Future project, which provides high-quality parental training to rural families, championed by a group of successful businesswomen who used their own parenting experience in combination with business skills to design and roll out the project.
Giving back to one’s hometown is also characteristic of Chinese philanthropy. Giving back through education provides undeniable impact, so it comes as no surprise that philanthropists choose education as their primary concern.
Our study found that educational philanthropy has its own distinct characteristics. One is the prevalence of giving to multiple top-notch universities rather than solely to one’s alma mater. As Gao Yang, the Director of Tsinghua University Educational Foundation, explains, ‘it not only helps their families build bonds with established academic institutions but could generates bigger philanthropic, educational and social influence,’ donating to a prestigious university is also ‘a prudent choice for those philanthropists who want to achieve impact and scale in a trustworthy manner.’
There is another characteristic of Chinese education foundations, which is that, rather than providing grants, they become operating foundations that design and implement their own programs. Often, the donors themselves participate in the development and implementation of their projects. For example, Jack Ma tasked his staff to investigate the high turnover rate of rural teachers before setting up his foundation. Li Kemei brought her passion for music to her project design; and, after supporting other nonprofits, Li Wen decided to start her own foundation to promote children’s reading, as she ‘had a lot of visions and thoughts that couldn’t be fully realized and implemented [through other nonprofits].’
The underserved areas in education
As the world’s largest education system, China has achieved universal compulsory nine-year education, but because of its size and complexity, educational needs persist. Our goal was to identify which educational needs require additional philanthropic support. Historically, rural institutions lack infrastructure, learning materials, and qualified teachers, which affects student outcomes. In the last two decades, China has invested heavily in rural schools, but there is still a gap between urban and rural education quality and accessibility.
There is a trend of ‘missing central’ in the geographical sense. Despite receiving only 6.3 per cent of educational funding, schools in the central provinces, such as Anhui, Henan, Hubei, and Hunan, receive significantly less support than those in the eastern and western regions. As a result of the huge amount of wealth in eastern China and along the coast, and the enormous support provided to poor areas in the west during the poverty alleviation campaign, the nation’s central regions often get left behind.
Another need lies at the high school level. Using scholarships – the most common intervention in Chinese educational philanthropy – as an example, our data shows only 11.8 per cent of all scholarships go to high school students, with 21.8 per cent to students at compulsory levels and the majority (65.6 per cent) to students at the tertiary level.
With support from our expert committee and our evidence-based research, we also identified areas like all-around development, early childhood education, vocational education, and special education as needing extra help and resources.
Education is about the future. Education funding supports the next generation and the further development of the nation, and the projects are uplifting and optimistic in nature. With these factors in mind, it is clear that education will continue to be a popular recipient of philanthropy in China.
Angel Chiang is Manager, Advisory and Research and Irene Liu is a Research Intern at Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS).
Alliance magazine is collaborating with CAPS to publish a series of four articles about ‘Philanthropy with Chinese Characteristics’ over the next several months. Drawing upon the insights of CAPS’ latest China Issue Guide Series, each piece will dive into the features of Chinese philanthropy addressing health, environment, education, and poverty alleviation. Read the full report.