China’s rigid college entrance exam is failing the tests of equality and diversity

James Liang says China’s higher education institutions should have a freer hand in recruiting students, instead of being forced to rely solely on the result of this nationwide exam. Changes to the system, which favours the better off, are overdue

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2017, 7:31pm

China’s education system is being held hostage by its rigid state exam system. To enrol in a good school or university, a Chinese student needs to spend two years, if not longer, to prepare for an exam – the result of which will decide whether he or she makes it.

It’s a gruesome experience for most students. Many affluent Chinese families are walking away from the country’s nationwide college entrance exam, known as gaokao. Instead, they are sending their children overseas. It’s a trend now among not only the super-rich but also middle-class families. Tellingly, even teachers at Peking University and Tsinghua University, the top universities in China, are sending their children abroad for study, in a sign of the lack of confidence in the education system.

The current system is not helping the poor, either. Under Chinese law, children of migrant workers must take exams in their rural home towns. This arrangement has created whole generations of “left-behind children” who remain in the countryside while their parents take jobs in the city. Thus, the education system is a source of not just the urban-rural divide in China, but also the wealth gap.

To address these problems, every university in China should be granted autonomy in student recruitment. China could retain the nationwide college exam system, but the results should be a reference, instead of the sole criterion, in recruitment. Different schools and departments can have different criteria in recruiting students. Students with special talents could still have the chance to get into the right schools.

Overall, students would be encouraged to study for self-development, not taking exams.

Gaokao: how one exam can set the course of a student’s life in China

Some argue that if schools have a freer hand in student enrolment, it may worsen education inequalities. The worry is that children from backwater rural areas or low-income families would be discriminated against. However, there is no evidence to support such worries.

The percentage of rural students in top Chinese schools has in fact been falling steadily over the past years – the level is said to be below 20 per cent. This is because rich families have the financial resources to put their children in good schools and send them for private lessons, so they have a better chance of getting into a good university.

Education tourism the latest frontier for China’s ‘tiger’ parents

But if schools are granted autonomy, they could give preferential treatment to disadvantaged groups. In many US institutions, for instance, the entrance score requirement for a child in need is lower than the average. For schools using the SAT score, a 200-300 points waiver (out of a total score of 1,600 points) is often adopted for African and Hispanic students. Indeed, global experiences show that autonomous student recruitment can often address inequities.

Another concern is corruption – whether schools would be tempted to take bribes if they can decide on student enrolment. I believe this would not be a problem as every school would try to protect its reputation and thus seek a fair and effective recruitment system.

As for worries that the rich would receive favours in such a system, it’s true that the top US private schools welcome children from super-rich families, which can be tapped for donations. It seems unfair on the surface, but is it necessarily a bad thing for the super-rich to pay extra to get an education? If one rich man’s donation can help another 100 poor students, isn’t it a good thing?

Many rich Chinese are open to making donations to schools. The husband-and-wife team behind the property development firm Soho China, Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin, have donated millions to help Chinese students in US schools. If, one day, China’s rich are willing to open their wallets for Chinese schools to retain the country’s top students, it should be seen as a sign of the success of China’s education reform.

The reality is that China’s top students will continue to seek an overseas education even if China starts to change its education system in the next five to 10 years. So China has no time to lose; it needs to urgently make changes to its college entrance exam system.

World’s richest self-made woman is a Chinese entrepreneur from a small village

A one-size-fits-all system works against the country’s need for talent. How did college dropouts such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg manage to start their businesses? They didn’t waste their early years preparing for exams. They didn’t need to graduate from university to learn the skills they needed. It’s rare in China to see an entrepreneur in his or her early 20s, and it’s a pity that so many of its talented youth have wasted their precious time on taking exams.

Giving higher-education institutions more autonomy is now a global trend. Inevitably, China must embrace this trend to build a globally competitive education system. In an era of rapid technological progress, China must remake its old-fashioned education system as quickly as possible.

Dr James Liang is chairman of