Monday, 27 February 2012

University of Sydney - Tier 1 Gaokao Scores - What do they mean?

The University of Sydney (UoS) has adopted a strategy of accepting Chinese National University Entrance Exam, a.k.a. the Gaokao or 高考, as the criteria for entry.  As one of Australia's most prestigious universities, UoS appear to be jettisoning the requirement for Chinese students who have passed the Gaokao at "Tier 1" level to undertake a foundation year prior to enrolling on UG programmes.  

UoS' website states that this decision has been made to "make it easier for China's top students to study here".  The decision has been made to allow students with a Tier 1 Gaokao score and who satisfy the minimum English language requirements to be admitted directly to UoS programmes without the need for a foundation or pre-study programme.  

While this may, at first, seem like a good idea, this decision appears to betray a fundamental lack of understanding about the Gaokao system and what actually constitutes a "top student" in China.  Certainly, they appear to have confused Tier 1 Gaokao scores with an indication of student quality.  

Firstly, a Tier 1 score level differs from province to province.  Students in Shanghai and Beijing are at a strong advantage over students from richer coastal provinces, but which have fewer top class universities, such as Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.  In addition, provinces have a barter system to agree, in advance, how many students one province or municipality will take from another.  Additionally, while this is termed a "national" entrance exam, it is far from evenly applied.  Jiangsu (480), Zhejiang(810), Shanghai (630) (all major target markets for Chinese students) and Hainan (900) all have different total scores the standard 750 marks.  The exam content also differs from province to province.  

Tier 1 students are effectively those students who have scored a mark high enough to apply to university in China.  For example, the cut off for a student in the sciences in Shandong Province was around 570/750 last year (Science stream is more competitive than the Arts stream in Gaokao).  Should a student from Shandong score 570 and hold the requisite English language qualifications (IELTS 6.5 - 7.5 depending on course at UoS), they will be able to apply for direct entry to Year 1 of a 3yr UG programme.  

However, the actual score needed for a student from Shandong to gain admission to a top Chinese university is in 640-680 area, certainly admission to Peking or Tsinghua would require a minimum score of around 670-680.  Confused???  Welcome to the opaque world of chinese university admissions.  

Even if you look at the Sino-UK JV universities in China, XJTLU and UNNC, their entrance criteria are significantly above the Tier 1 cut-off points (provincial Tier 1 + 20-30 points as the lowest score in most cases, depending on the popularity of the UG programme, with scores ranging up to Tier 1 + 80 points).  In the case of XJTLU, it is tougher to gain access to degree programmes than it is to satisfy the minimum entrance requirements for study at the University of Liverpool, according to the UoL website, which asks for 530 at Gaokao, regardless of province or whether or not Tier 1 is satisfied (although, like UoS, studying at Liverpool UK requires IELTS 6.5 or higher, whereas XJTLU offers a 4year degree with the 1st year providing intensive English and study skills).  

We must remember here too that there are approximately 9m Gaokao candidates, with only 2m university places up for grabs.  Where UoS seem to have encountered confusion is that they believe Tier 1 is an indication of a minimum academic standard.  It is actually related to the number of places available at universities in the province (a); the number of places in other provinces that have been negotiated through barter (b). A+B = C  (total available university places).  The provincial/municipal government then takes (C), for example 200k places, and then looks at the first 200k students in terms of exam performance.  The lowest score (Student No. 200000) score is then  set as the Tier 1 score.  Also, students going to university in their home province require lower scores than if they go to another province.  Finally, depends to a great extent on the performance of the Gaokao cohort as a whole.  For example, last year Shandong's Tier 1 score was 570, about 20 points lower than in any of the previous 5 years.  

A final consideration UoS appear to have missed is the deficit in English language ability which will need to be plugged.  With a minimum of IELTS 6.5 required for entrance to UoS, students will need to study for a minimum of one year to raise their standards from Gaokao English to required standard.   Many students will cram through the summer to get IELTS 5.0, then look for foundation programmes overseas where they can study for 1yr prior to enrolling on a UG programme.  

I admire the attempt.  UoS is a world class institution and it is good to see a genuine attempt to increase admissions standards. Lancaster University, according to their website, admit students with a worryingly low 60% (450/750 in most cases) for their 2+2 programmes.  Students with this level of score would, in all likelihood, be unable to enrol for UG programs at any Chinese university (though a 3yr vocational degree may be an option).  450/750 in the Gaokao is a humiliating fail.  Unfortunately this level of entrance criteria appears to be the norm for many "world class" universities when assessing Chinese students.    

My fear in this case is that any self respecting first class student will balk at the idea of applying to a university which accepts a Tier 1 benchmark + English.  UoS could well be damaging their reputation in the eyes of the very market they are attempting to attract.  Top class students, those with Gaokao Tier 1 +10-15%, will avoid applying to universities who accept students with a flat Tier 1 score.  In China, the gulf in class between a university accepting Tier 1 and a university accepting Tier 1+10-15% is difficult to quantify.  It would not be an exaggeration to equate it with comparing a city level technical college with a world class university such as UoS or Cambridge or Columbia.  When I conducted study into Chinese students and the marketing of UK higher education for my graduate studies, the most consistent indicator of the quality of a university favoured by Chinese students was the difficulty in gaining entry.  

By accepting Tier 1, the University of Sydney may well be raising their standards, but they could well be damaging their reputation.   

3D Earth Screensaver Preview
Free 3D Earth Screensaver
Watch the Earth right on your desktop! Check it out at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for explaining this. Your posts help me understand how complex issues are in Chinese education.