Eight human rights lawyers have urged the Ministry of Education to abolish discriminatory enrolment policies at elite universities which put students from some impoverished and populous regions at a great disadvantage.
Chang Boyang, a lawyer from Henan who was one of those who signed the letter to the ministry, said they urged it to reform the university recruitment system, which has been linked to the controversial hukou, or household registration system.
Citing official statistics, Chang said that Peking University planned to recruit 614 first-year students in Beijing - a sixth of its enrolment for the 2012-2013 academic year - but that only 73,000 students sat the gaokao national university entrance exams in the capital last month. Meanwhile, it had allocated 108 first-year places for students from Henan province, where a whopping 825,000 sat the exam.
'In the end, you'd find it many times harder to get into a prestigious university like Peking University simply because you're born in Henan, Anhui or Shandong and not in Beijing,' Chang said. 'It's gross discrimination.'
Other top-tier universities, including Beijing's Tsinghua University and Shanghai's Fudan University, have similar policies favouring local students. Three years ago, a student with a Shanghai hukou was 287 times more likely to be admitted to Fudan than a student from Inner Mongolia.
The discriminatory enrolment policies offer further insight into the inequalities enforced via the outdated hukou system, which have increasingly become a source of discontent on the mainland.
Chang said that top mainland universities should never have put such policies in place because most of them are controlled directly by the ministry and thus funded by taxpayers from all over the mainland.
Zheng Jineng, a lawyer from Anhui who also signed the letter, said that preferential policies for local students were at odds with the country's constitution and contravened the mainland's Education Law, which enshrined equal access to education for all students.
The ministry refused to confirm yesterday whether it had received the letter and did respond to questions about the legality of the controversial policies and how it would address growing public discontent.
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, said that public discontent stemmed from an over-concentration of top universities in major metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai and in developed regions, and that rapid expansion of the university system since the late 1990s meant that students no longer competed for a university place but for a place at a prestigious university.
He said about a fifth of the top 110 universities on the mainland were in Beijing and they gave many more places to local students. While some had taken steps to allocate more places to students from rural areas, public grievances over the system remained deep-seated.
'The root cause of the problem is a centralised university recruitment system in which each university is required to have a quota system prone to bureaucratic interference,' Xiong said. 'So the best way to address such discriminatory policies is to allow universities, and particularly the top ones, the freedom to recruit students independently, ignoring regional boundaries.'