China’s Generation Z gaokao candidates shrug off college entrance exam’s reputation for making or breaking futures

China’s gaokao exam season moves into a new era as students born in the 21st century take the rigid national college entrance examinations for the first time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2018, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 7:26pm

China’s gaokao exam season will move into a new era this week as students born in the 21st century take the rigid national college entrance examinations for the first time.

Their scores will determine whether they can go to university, which institutions will accept them and what careers await them.

But many of the 9.75 million secondary school students who will sit for the exams, officially known as the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, for between two and three days from Thursday, reject the popular view that gaokao can make or break their futures, according to a new survey.

Half of the 20,000 gaokao candidates who took part in the survey conducted by Chinese web portal and social media company Sina Corp – including, for the first time, those born since the beginning of the year 2000 – said they believed that the exam would not be their only opportunity to take hold of their future.

Just half believed getting a high score on gaokao would be important in deciding how the rest of their lives would go.

That result is a distinct departure from a China Youth Daily survey’s finding last year that more than 80 per cent of examination sitters, mostly born in the 1980s and some in the 1990s and 1970s, thought the exam would play a significant role in determining their future.

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Sina’s survey also determined that one in four students planned to explore other avenues to their ultimate goals, including seeking degrees abroad or taking part in tests for art majors.

While the sample size is too small to conclude that gaokao’s ability to inspire awe and reverence among today’s students is declining, it is not hard to find young adults who are unimpressed by the exam’s reputation as a life-changing event.

One such person is Yu Fei. The Beijing 17-year-old decided to skip gaokao this year to focus on getting a high score on the English proficiency test offered by the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

“I know what my interest is and I know how to realise it,” Yu said.

“I don’t think gaokao means that much to me.”

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Yu said she hoped a high score on an IELTS exam would help her get into a university in Australia to study tourism.

IELTS is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand academic institutions, and by thousands of US academic institutions.

Xiao Huan was quoted by Sina as saying that she did not need to sit for gaokao because she had already received an offer of admission from a US university.

The girl’s classmates were also going down other paths, including sitting for independent university admission tests and taking tests for students with specific talents, according to Sina.

The youngest students in Sina’s survey showed “high individuality” in expressing their aims for their higher-education career, according to the web portal company.

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More than 61 per cent said they alone would pick their major, without relying on their parents’ advice. Fourteen per cent of parents who took part in the survey, or about 6,200 people, said they would support their child’s decision regarding his or her preferred course of study.

One in four students said affection for an idol would influence their choice of major or university.

For instance, one Beijing parent said her son decided to apply to Xiamen University because Yi Zhongtian, a Chinese cultural television show presenter and professor that he liked, had taught in the school’s Chinese department, according to Sina.

“Idols motivate students for higher targets, which is plausible,” the parent was quoted as saying.

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Gaokao is the academic qualification test for almost all high school graduates in China hoping to receive an undergraduate education.

The first such standardised examination in the People’s Republic of China was held in 1952 but halted 14 years later after chairman Mao Zedong decreed that educated youth must be “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”.

The examination was reinstated in 1977 after the Cultural Revolution.

An age restriction on gaokao was scrapped in 2001 and anyone with a high school diploma can now take the exam.

The examination covers three compulsory subjects – Chinese, mathematics and English – and one comprehensive subject depending whether the candidate chooses to major in liberal arts or the sciences.

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The whole examination lasts nine hours over two or three days, depending on the province.

For most Chinese, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, a high gaokao score is seen as their only way to significantly alter their fate.

For this year’s gaokao candidates, however, the playing field will be more level than it had been in the past.

In March, the Ministry of Education said it would scrap awarding bonus points to students who held talent certificates in sports, had won a middle school Olympian competition in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology or information, and for those who had been awarded provincial level moral titles.

Stricter scrutiny, however, will be in place as authorities take extra measures to prevent cheating. Candidates in Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces will have their faces scanned to ensure they match a submitted photo.

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The new generation also will have more higher-education options than their predecessors, according to the ministry.

Some universities will place first-year students in broader programmes, so they can choose a major that interests them in their second year. The list of majors has been expanded to include robot engineering and cyberspace security.