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'Gaokao' system needs re-examining in China
Publication Date : 18-02-2013
In China, the national college entrance exam, or gaokao, has for decades represented a passage to a brighter future, regardless of one's start in life, like the imperial exams of old to pick officials.
Millions go through the exam each year, a process said to be akin to thousands of soldiers on horseback crossing a wooden bridge, or qian jun wan ma guo du mu qiao.
But in recent years, those with the means are eschewing the gaokao and going abroad.
One sign, as The Straits Times reported in a feature last week, is the growing flow of Chinese students to Hong Kong and Singapore to take the SAT - formerly called the Scholastic Assessment Test - required for admission to American universities.
As expectations of the people rise, the wealth gap grows and more rural residents settle in the cities, China's gaokao is in dire need of repair, said experts who believe that though changes are on the way, more needs to be done.
Failing which, the world's No. 2 economy may have to grapple with more disputes over who gets a slice of the higher education pie, and problems of a growing brain drain and students who can ace examinations but not create.
Back in 1998, less than 10 per cent of each cohort made it to university in China. By 2011, this had risen to 27 per cent. China aims for 40 per cent by 2020.
Despite the expansion of university education, the widespread view is that the gaokao system breeds inequality. Universities and education officials decide each year how many places to give to each province, city or region. Beijing and Shanghai get the lion's share of places, in part because together they have the most universities, some of which are funded by local governments.
A student from these two cities is much more likely than someone from populous but poor places like Henan to get into their chosen university. Last year, for instance, a Beijing student was 65 times more likely to enter Peking University than one from Henan, as The Straits Times reported last week.
Existing inequalities have become more complicated in recent years as millions leave the countryside for the big cities but are barred from enjoying the same social benefits as local residents.
Besides inequality, another problem is gaokao's narrow focus on grades, which percolates down to all levels of schooling in China and has created a culture of studying just for the sake of exams.
This produces well-drilled students - 15-year-olds from Shanghai were tops in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in 2009.
But Chinese graduates tend to do less well when they join the workforce, with surveys of American firms in China saying they face a lack of talent.
For sure, China's Ministry of Education is trying to fix things.
Starting this year, most cities and provinces in China are opening up the exam to migrant students. But entry barriers stay high in Shanghai and Beijing.
Allowing yidi gaokao - taking the gaokao outside one's hometown - does not go far enough.
Why not scrap the unequal university quotas and allocate places proportionally based on the population of each province, they ask.
This change would mean that students have the same chance of getting into their school of choice, no matter where they take the test, and putting to rest the bitter controversy over yidi gaokao.
To make this possible, the gaokao should be standardised across the country, not made up of different papers by province, as it is now. A standard test can mean a standard cut-off score, like the way secondary school places are allocated in Singapore after the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). It has the advantage of being fair and transparent. This is not a bad idea but is likely to be opposed by residents in Beijing and Shanghai, whose children benefit from the status quo.
Another way to make the gaokao less of an "all or nothing" examination is by decreasing its weight in university admissions. In Singapore, for example, universities take in up to 10 per cent of students based on factors like sporting or art achievements.
In China, some already do so. In 2003, 22 universities were allowed to take in 5 per cent of their enrolment using their own criteria. This was later extended to a total of about 80 universities.
Better still, make the gaokao like the SAT - a standard test that can be taken several times.
No doubt tweaks to China's gaokao are needed. Scrapping it completely, as some have demanded, would be silly though.
In China, a small dose of discretion, albeit with proper checks, may be tolerable.
But total discretion, which could arise with the abolition of the gaokao, would spell disaster.
For instance, China does not have the PSLE, where one's score decides the secondary school. Instead, the secondary school one gets into may sometimes boil down to connections and bribery.
So for all its flaws, gaokao is still the best among several bad options.