Everyone should be equal under China’s university entrance exam

Winston Mok says China needs to make the quota system for its gaokao fairer, so it doesn’t favour students from the top cities, to ensure education remains a sharp tool for upward mobility

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2016, 11:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:59pm

I was somewhat surprised that The Hunger Games movies were ever released uncensored in China; they are uncanny reflections of Chinese society. Today in China, another round of “games” has just finished – the sitting of the annual university entrance examination. But, unlike in the movies, no representatives can be deployed; most young people have to play.

In The Hunger Games, while representatives from districts one and two receive better training, the playing field is somewhat level. But for China’s university entrance exam, the odds are strongly in favour of districts one, two and three (Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin). Their residents, besides getting a better high school education, have a much better chance of gaining admission to universities in their home cities, the best in the country.

Thousands of Chinese parents take to the streets to protest university admission quotas

Last month saw protests in Jiangsu ( 江蘇 ) and Hubei ( 湖北 ) – districts four and five, if you will – by disgruntled parents over new quotas which will mean better access to their universities for students from districts 11 and 12 (poorer inland provinces). Why should they make “sacrifices” when the top districts do not open their doors wider?

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The obvious solution is to level the playing field, so that everyone competes equally for entrance to Peking or Tsinghua university, regardless of where they come from. University entrance exams need to be standardised nationally, for starters. However, such a “radical” policy faces opposition as policymakers live in Beijing. Why would they change a system that strongly favours their children or grandchildren?

In the meantime, the complicated provincial allocation system can be simplified into three tiers, with allocation to local students at the top. At the bottom is preferred admissions to students from poor regions. In the middle is open competition for everyone else. This tier should gradually be expanded at the expense of the top tier. Districts could also be combined.

But even a transitional system is sure to meet with protests, especially from provinces that fear they would fare worse in open competition.

Education reform is harder than economic reform; it is mostly a zero-sum game. But the economic future of the nation is at stake. Frustrated at the perceived unfairness of the system, some affluent families are emigrating.

Under China’s rigid hukou system, one’s fate is partly determined at birth. As a key tool of upward mobility, education can reshape one’s destiny. A market-based university admission process would allow more effective development of human capital – the core wealth of the nation in an innovation-driven economy.

Winston Mok, an MIT alumnus, is a private investor