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Protesters took to the streets in Jiangsu and Hubei provinces to demonstrate against China’s plan to introduce university admission quotas for non-local students. File photo

Protests over university admission quotas highlight challenge in reforming China’s education system

Demonstrations in Jiangsu and Hubei provinces over university admission quotas have exposed deep-rooted challenges in reforming the centralised education system, researchers say.

Hours after thousands of ­parents took to the streets in Nanjing and Wuhan, the Ministry of Education said late on Saturday night that admissions resulting from college entrance exams in all provinces would steadily increase this year.

The statement was aimed at easing parents’ fears that a move to allocate enrolment quotas for non-local students would make it more difficult for their children to find places close to home.

Both the ministry and authorities in Jiangsu and Hubei insisted the quotas were aimed at making tertiary education more equitable and would benefit students from less developed inland provinces.

Zhang Wei, a resident of Wuxi in Jiangsu, said despite the ministry’s reassurances, he remained worried that his son, who takes the college entrance exam next month, might be affected.

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

Zhang did not attend the protest, but supported the demonstrators. “Our dissatisfaction with the unfair college enrolment policies, which always put local students in Jiangsu at a disadvantage, have accumulated for years and the admission quota issue is just the last straw,” he said.

Critics of the college admission system say that because it is based on household registration, with most schools giving preference to residents, students outside big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are at a disadvantage. On some estimates, students from Beijing and Shanghai are more than twice as likely to find a place at a top university.

Analysts said despite steps to promote transparency in enrolment, authorities had failed to tackle the root of the problem and there was discontent nationwide.

“Apparently, authorities are not very sensitive and have failed to solicit public opinion before announcing such a change,” Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education ­Research Institute, said.

Communist Party tightens grip on control of China’s universities

Analysts said despite mounting public pressure, educational reform had largely been hindered by bickering between local and state authorities and the centrally planned economy mindset.

“Education reforms, which should be regarded as part of social justice, have been under ­intense public scrutiny,” said Professor Mao Shoulong at Renmin University of China.

“But unfortunately, education authorities have chosen to stick to decades-old highly centralised college admission practices and shown little appetite for market-oriented reforms,” he said.

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, called for bolder reforms for greater justice. “The leadership should be aware of the trend of our times and an open, just and professional government should start by limiting its own power.”

Additional reporting by Alice Yan