Xiaoying Zhou

China Watches As One University Edges Toward Admissions Reform

While the number of Chinese applicants to American colleges saw an exponential increase over the past few years, the “gao kao,” (高考), China’s dreaded college entrance examination, is still most Chinese high schoolers’ only chance to gain access to higher education. But due to the efforts of one school in Shenzhen, that may finally be changing.

An intro to the mother of all rat races

For those new to the subject, it may be helpful to know that each year more than 10 million Chinese high school seniors take the gao kao. Of those test-takers, only about 60% are admitted into any university at all (according to People’s Daily Online), which can make all the difference for a young graduate’s career prospects. 

In fact, the job market has been looking so dim nowadays that even a college degree doesn’t guarantee anything. According to China’s Ministry of Education, the employment rate of last year’s college graduates was only around 74%. But these statistics deserve scrutiny. As many would argue, included in those 74% were students who only signed a contract to show to their schools, students who wrote that they were employed on schools’ questionnaires to get their diploma—some schools don’t confer the degree unless students find a job—and students whose first jobs were only temporary or very unstable. 

Everyone is studying for the gao kao—on a drip!

Adding to the pressure of a gloomy job market, the gao kao still weighs as essentially the sole determinant in Chinese universities’ selection process. As many Chinese parents would say, a single score sends you to up to paradise, or straight to hell. 

Departments of different schools set up their own “score lines” (分数线), which are minimum scores students need to achieve in order to be accepted. A student passionate for economics may end up accepting a place in the Department of Physics of Peking University due to a lower score (in which case the brand name of Peking University overrides the desire to pursue something of genuine interest). Majors are settled before entrance into college and it is extremely hard to switch to another major once you’re already in college.

The prominent role of the gao kao imposes enormous fear and pressure. At a normal three-year high school, students spend their first two years learning what they are supposed to learn in three years. Their last year completely is devoted to gao kao prep, which is basically repeated drilling and endless practice tests. In a sad illustration of the level of pressure and obsession that surrounds the gao kao, last year a student jumped from the exam building after he was refused entry into his gao kao test room. He showed up late for the test, and died for it. 

Showing up late and unable to enter his test building, he jumped and died.

Talk of education reform 

Educational reform has been on the table for China’s Ministry of Education for years and opinions are seemingly divided.

Some support the current system for its relative fairness: For students who weren’t born with a silver spoon or family connections, the gao kao is in fact a great equalizer that gives them a shot at higher education. If parents manage to bribe their kids’ way into colleges even with the present set “score lines,” what would happen if schools suddenly obtained the freedom to admit whoever they want?

But for most people, a test-score-oriented selection process is intrinsically problematic. Evaluation of students should be multi-faceted, they argue, but gao kao scores fail to account for students’ non-academic potential or abilities. Often cited in debates is American colleges’ consideration of student volunteer experience and extracurricular activities. Opponents of the current system question whether test scores are a good approximation of students’ academic competence at all when they are but the results of constant drilling. Do scores say anything about students’ creativity, for instance?

In any case, those who support the gao kao only seem to do it for lack of a better replacement. Consensus on the urgent need for educational reform has basically been reached. Yet while a few policy changes are indeed being made, none of them really touch the fundamentals.

“Autonomous recruitment” and other measures

Starting in 2003, the Ministry loosened up its grip…slightly. Some schools were given the right to “autonomous recruitment” (自主招生). This means that before the gao kao was administered, high schools can recommend that students participate in exams designed by universities with this right to “autonomous recruitment.” Interviews are also offered to complement the test score, and students sometimes travel across the country to discuss the global economic woes, with an “admissions committee.” Those who do well enough get a boost to their gao kao score of 5 to 30 additional points (out of a total of 480 points, for example, for candidates in Jiangsu) if they choose to enroll in the universities who had “autonomously recruited” them. These bonus points do make a big difference for those who happen to underperform on the gao kao, but are otherwise excellent exam takers throughout their high school years.

The waiting lines for university--and post-college employment--are long

This policy is very limited in scope. Ordinary high schools don’t even have the right to recommend students or are given a very small quota. Even for the lucky ones, “autonomous recruitment” isn’t as sweet a deal as one might expect. The bonus points are bounded—that is, applicable when applying only to the school whose “autonomous recruitment” exam a student passed. Students availing themselves of this system have even less flexibility in choosing a school and major.

Critics complain that measures such as “autonomous recruitment” don’t really challenge the gao kao’s role in the admissions process. The independently designed exams are only harder than the gao-kao, whereas the interviews are there more for the fanfare than for having any real influence in schools’ decision-making process. Critics also point out that trips to take these exams waste students’ time and energy (and forces them to foot the bill for travelling expenses).

The dilemma of South University of Science and Technology of China (中国南方科技大学)

Some say that the hope of China’s higher educational reform lies in South University of Science and Technology (SUSTC), a school funded independently by the municipal government of Shenzhen. Recently, SUSTC went on the frontline again: On April 24, the Ministry of Education finally granted the school a legitimate status within the national higher education system. This was a pleasant surprise to SUSTC’s president, Zhu Shiqing (朱时清) , who had been fighting for the Ministry’s recognition for years.

In March of last year, Zhu went on and admitted about 40 students from across the country on his own. These students passed an exam independently designed by SUSTC. Their performance on the exam was the only thing that mattered, and these students didn’t even take gao kao in the end. But soon the Ministry of Education reacted, requesting that these students go back to high school and finish their gao kao. Zhu refused to let his students go. The autonomy of the school was upheld, but not being recognized by the Ministry meant that the degrees conferred by SUSTC would only be “unofficial.” 

Will the pioneer of China's educational reform successfully start its next round of recruitment?

This incident brought him much praise from the general public. Students of SUSTC made shirts with Zhu’s picture on them and wore them to show support. In November 2011, he won the “2011 Chengdu Internationally Influential Figure” (成都国际影响人物) award for his bold reforms.

Now that the permit from the Ministry of Education has arrived, many see it as the first solid step China has taken towards real educational reform. A simple search on Sina Weibo shows that there is hardly an unfavorable remark concerning Zhu’s brave initiative there. 

But how radically different is Zhu’s effort from the Ministry’s previous measures? In Zhu’s new admissions plan, the gao kao score only accounts for 40% of a student’s final evaluation. So from the look of it, the gao kao’s dominance in student evaluation is at least reduced. 

But for many, problems abound for SUSTC’s future development. In June, last year, three professors who were to join Zhu’s effort in building SUSTC quit in disappointment. They released an open statement on Southern Weekly (南方周末) criticizing Zhu for uncritically dismissing the current system without having a concrete proposal of his own. (For a more concise English counterpart, check out Yale University professor Zhong Weimin’s letter criticizing Zhu’s initiative, published on Science Magazine in May 2011.) Up till now SUSTC still doesn’t have its own constitution nor a concrete curriculum. Most faculty members aren’t permanent.

In his own defense, President Zhu confesses that it takes time to build something from scratch. At present, he is awaiting approval from the Ministry for his new admissions plan for the 2012-2013 academic year.

Will SUSTC have enough time to recruit their students this year? And more importantly, what will become of SUSTC and China’s higher educational reform? Unlike a simple check-the-box prompt on a gao kao test sheet, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer.

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Xiaoying Zhou

Xiaoying Zhou is a student at Yale University.