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Infatuation with gaokao champions is not healthy

Publication Date : 22-07-2012


A top Asian university recently dropped a bombshell when it announced a bumper crop of 21 top scorers in the gaokao, the fiercely competitive Chinese national college examination, will be enrolled in September.

While marvelling at the Hong Kong university's ever increasing attractiveness - this year's intake includes 11 provincial champions and 10 city champions from a biggest-ever pool of more than 12,000 applicants from the mainland - people are worried about a perceived decline in the competitiveness of the elite mainland institutions against their rival from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Such angst is misplaced, however. In the number of gaokao champions admitted, any other school pales in comparison with Peking University and Tsinghua University, the two top mainland universities that attract hundreds, even thousands, of gaokao champions each year, if you count in all urban localities in the country.

Instead, people should be more wary of the media hype surrounding the top scorers and the associated six-figure scholarships, as it might lead to renewed public infatuation with gaokao champions, which has been under check in recent years.

The ability to attract gaokao champions has long been regarded as a key strength of the top mainland universities, which used to aggressively promote themselves in local schools and offer scholarships, money prizes, study trips abroad and other generous rewards to attract the top students. In the weeks after the gaokao scores are released, the top scorers become the pride of local high schools, role models for young students and promoters of various causes. In one extreme case, five provincial champions of the 2009 gaokao were hired to model for an underwear brand that targeted teenagers.

As damage control, education authorities now forbid the release of the names of the country's brightest and best. The search for the best performers of the gaokao, including recruitment by mainland universities, has become largely muted and clandestine.

Now the Hong Kong university has raised some eyebrows as it shows off its haul of gaokao champions. A comment that went viral on the Chinese Internet lamented "even such a prestigious university can't stop itself being corny" in its recruitment campaign.

Besides, the results from many studies on the post-exam performance of gaokao champions have challenged the presumed academic and professional potential of these stars. In one widely cited study, none of the 3,300 people who were once top scorers in the gaokao during the past three decades were found to be a "champion" in their professional area, including academic research, business and politics.

According to Cai Yanhou, a retired professor from the Central China University who has tracked the career path of some gaokao champions, many of them were set up to fail from the beginning, because they had chosen their college mostly based on generous financial aid from a reputable university, and picked up a major with good job prospects, instead of personal interests and passions. Consequently, some graduates had pursued careers they were not interested in, which led to lower chances for success in later life, he said.

A check on the majors of the top gaokao scorers since China resumed the national exam in 1977 found 41 percent were in business management, 31 percent in sciences, 13 percent in information technology and 6 percent in law.

And while many gaokao champions wanted to be managers, some lacked the creativity and communication skills needed as they had triumphed mainly because of self-discipline and their ability to concentrate and memorize materials.

Perhaps a university different from a traditional Chinese institution will be able to reinvent the champions and break the curse of the top scorers.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily


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