Official response to exam muted, for good reasons

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2007, 12:00am

Last week, a record 10 million students sat the annual university entrance exam, marking its 30th anniversary. One would have assumed the occasion would provide a perfect backdrop against which mainland leaders could show up in force to claim the credit and beat the drums on how higher education has changed the country.

But the event passed with little fanfare, with state media devoting coverage to the usual melee beforehand - the heavy morning traffic, and anxious parents dropping off their children or milling around outside exam halls.

The leaders have good reasons to remain low-key, not least because the mainland's higher education system is in a mess and crying out for drastic reforms.

More ominously, university students, angered by widespread social injustices and uncertain employment prospects, have again showed worrying signs of militancy, 18 years after the Tiananmen student demonstrations.

The fact that several thousand university students in Henan went on a rampage on Wednesday - a day before the two-day national exam - was much more than an unfortunate coincidence.

The mainland has come a long way since late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's momentous decision in 1977 to resume the national exam and place knowledge acquisition above universities' political requirements, following the 10-year hiatus of the Cultural Revolution.

Since then, about 36 million students have been admitted to universities and technical colleges, and many of them have become part of the backbone of society.

Many of those who were enrolled in the first two years since Deng's reforms, 1977 and 1978, have grown to become the core of the next generation of political, business, and academic leaders, and are poised to take over in the next few years.

A casual look at the resumes of a few rising political stars, including the Liaoning party secretary Li Keqiang , Jiangsu party secretary Li Yuanchao and Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai shows they were admitted to university in 1978. In recent years, however, higher education - particularly the national entrance exam - has received growing criticism for encouraging high-score, low-capability graduates and discouraging creativity.

Furthermore, a university education can no longer guarantee a career in the highly competitive jobs market, whereas in the 1980s and early 1990s employers snapped up graduates. Official data shows that 30 per cent of graduates could not find a job every year since 2002.

Feeding their growing anxiety over job prospects is students' mounting anger over widespread social injustices and rampant official corruption, the same factors that led to the students' pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.

This partly explains why a small incident on Wednesday, in which city inspectors stopped a female student selling fashion accessories, quickly led to a riot by thousands of students from several universities in Zhengzhou , Henan.

Xinhua reported that Li Changchun, the mainland's eighth ranked leader, visited Henan University on Friday. It remained unclear whether his trip was linked to the riots, but the issue is likely to have been on top of the agenda in discussions he had with Henan officials behind closed doors.