Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Times Higher Education: Article fails to correctly grasp the nuances of Gaokao

The Times Higher Education published recently an article which drew attention to the very real issue of Hukou residential status and the right to sit the notorious Gaokao examination for entry to China's universities.

The article, penned by Hong Bing, Associate Professor of Journalism at Fudan University, featured some comments by Zhang Ming, Professor at Renmin University and blogger extraordinaire, on the recent initiatives of Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou to address this issue.  The following citation is from Hong Bing's THE article:

"In response, education authorities in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the megacities with the biggest migrant populations and the best education resources, finally published their roadmaps for reform in late December. But the plans have been widely criticised for setting high entry barriers for migrant students. Shanghai says that parents who have come to the city as "talents with expertise" and have a home there as well as a steady job may get a residence registration that allows their children to take Shanghai's college entrance exam in 2014. Guangzhou will open its entrance exam to qualified migrant students in 2016. But Beijing's plan didn't have even a timetable for opening its exams to migrant students. According to Professor Zhang, if the plans had been marked like an exam: "Guangzhou passed; Shanghai failed; and Beijing just turned in a blank exam paper.""

Yet this assessment byProfessor Zhang appears to overlook the fact that Guangzhou's efforts are really not that helpful.  I will, in this blog post, attempt to explain why.  

Hong Bing's article highlights the case of Zhan Haite, the daughter of a Shanghai-based migrant worker campaigning for the right to sit the Gaokao in Shanghai where she has been educated.  Under strict regulations, Chinese senior high school students must take the Gaokao exam in the town where there Hukou is registered, the Hukou being the system of household registration.  For Zhan Haite, this would have meant returning to Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province.  


So why is this a problem?  Why not just return to Jiangxi and take the Gaokao (National University Entrance Examination) there?  Well.  Its not that simple.  Welcome to the confusing world of the Gaokao.  

Firstly, although the Gaokao is described as a "national" examination, it is actually provincially administered.  Secondly, each province favours its own applicants for entry to universities located in that province.  Thirdly, the exams themselves differ from province to province (most provinces require a score out of 750, but Zhejiang (810).  And finally, sitting the Gaokao in certain provinces makes it much easier (or much harder) to gain access to a top university.  

Every July, when the Gaokao exam results are published, each province sets a Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 cut-off point.  For entrance to a 4yr UG (本科) programme, students must place above the Tier 1 cut-off point.  Failure to good enough grades ostensibly sentences the student one of three choices: (a) 3yr vocational technical college (大专); (b) going overseas or on one of the many under-the-radar articulation programmes run by private Chinese providers in conjunction with foreign universities, or (c) to re-register at the high school and retake the Gaokao the following year.

This is a stark choice.  Option (a) is a shameful proposition and many students and parents balk at the idea.  Option (b) is expensive.  Option (c) will fill the student with dread at the prospect of another year in the grip of a Gaokao studying frenzy (for a fairly standard overview of what Gaokao means to most Chinese high school students, see this post on sinostand: http://sinostand.com/2013/02/03/the-gaokao-highway-to-hell/ )

So what happens if a student achieves the Holy Grail of a Tier 1 score.  Well, firstly, a Tier 1 score is not necessarily a "good" score.  All it really means is that the student has finished in the top bracket and can apply for 4yr UG study at a fairly good university.  

The table below shows the Tier 1 cut-off points for each province in the Arts and Science streams in 2012 (students must nominate either Arts or Science as the focus of their Gaokao). 


Province
Total
Arts
Tier 1 Pass
Science
Tier 1 Pass
1
Guangdong
750
589
78.53%
585
78.00%
2
Anhui
750
577
76.93%
544
72.53%
3
Shandong
750
573
76.40%
582
77.60%
4
Hebei
750
572
76.27%
564
75.20%
5
Hunan
750
571
76.13%
520
69.33%
6
Jiangxi
750
570
76.00%
547
72.93%
7
Liaoning
750
563
75.07%
517
68.93%
8
Hubei
750
562
74.93%
551
73.47%
9
Zhejiang
810
606
74.81%
593
73.21%
10
Henan
750
557
74.27%
540
72.00%
11
Fujian
750
557
74.27%
546
72.80%
12
Hainan
900
668
74.22%
614
68.22%
13
Shaanxi
750
556
74.13%
517
68.93%
14
Chongqing
750
554
73.87%
522
69.60%
15
Tianjin
750
549
73.20%
530
70.67%
16
Shanghai
600
438
73.00%
632
72.00%
17
Guangxi
750
544
72.53%
528
70.40%
18
Guizhou
750
539
71.87%
470
62.67%
19
Shanxi
750
539
71.87%
530
70.67%
20
Gansu
750
533
71.07%
517
68.93%
21
Jiangsu
480
341
71.04%
340
70.83%
22
Jilin
750
529
70.53%
515
68.67%
23
Heilongjiang
750
526
70.13%
514
68.22%
24
Yunnan
750
520
69.33%
465
62.00%
25
Sichuan
750
516
68.80%
518
69.07%
26
Beijing
750
495
66.00%
477
63.60%
27
Xinjiang
750
493
65.73%
445
59.33%
28
Inner Mongolia
750
492
65.60%
469
62.53%
29
Ningxia
750
489
65.20%
440
58.67%
30
Qinghai
750
433
57.73%
401
53.47%
31
Xizang (Tibet)
750
320
42.67%
280
37.33%
Province Municipality or Autonomous Region
省,市,自治区
Key Universities*
重点大学
Standard Universities 一般大学
Minban Universities
大学

TOTAL
总计
Beijing 北京
27
26
9
62
Jiangsu
13
29
20
62
Shanghai 上海
9
20
15
44
Shaanxi 西
8
24
17
49
Hubei 湖北
7
27
9
43
Liaoning
6
33
10
49
Guangdong 广
5
29
22
56
Sichuan 四川
5
25
9
39
Heilongjiang
5
19
7
31
Hunan 湖南
4
20
10
34
Tianjin 天津
3
15
1
19
Jilin 吉林
3
21
3
27
Anhui 安徽
3
26
9
38
Chongqing
3
12
6
21
Hebei 河北
3
30
11
44
Shandong
2
35
24
61
Fujian 福建
2
16
18
36
Shanxi 山西
2
14
5
21
Jiangxi 江西
2
16
6
24
Zhejiang 浙江
1
24
11
36
Henan 河南
1
29
10
40
Gansu
1
12
1
14
Yunnan 云南
1
16
6
23
Guangxi 广西
1
18
8
27
Inner Mongolia/Neimenggu 内蒙古
1
9
5
15
Xinjiang 新疆
1
10
2
13
Guizhou
0
14
1
15
Ningxia 宁夏
0
4
2
6
Hainan 海南
0
5
3
8
Qinghai 青海
0
3
0
3
Tibet/Xizang 西藏 **
0
3
0
3
TOTAL
119
584
260
963




There are some other important aspects here.  The Tier 1 cut-off point is calculated according to filling university places, so although the Tier 1 cut-off remains fairly constant (+/- 10%) on an annual basis, students who expect an overall grade around the Tier 1 cut-off face an anxious wait to find out if they've done enough.  It is one of the most difficult aspects of recruitment trips in China to tell a student with 1 or 2 marks less than needed that you cannot accept their application.  There are usually tears, and lots of them.  

Secondly, Shanghai and Beijing have most of the top universities in China, they also have HE enrolment rates upwards of 80% (including 4yr and 3yr programmes).  It also has a much lower number of university applicants for a much greater number of places compared to provinces such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Guangdong.  In addition, the schools are often much more advanced in terms of facilities, HR and financial resources and generally of a consistent standard.  So while Shanghai requires a score of 73% or above in Gaokao Science (72% in Arts), the chances of being accepted to a prestigious institution are much greater (one of my research projects in the pipeline is to conduct in depth quant analysis of the Gaokao system, taking into account all of these factors, and to try and understand the impact of regional Hukou registration on university entrance).  

If you look at the distribution of universities offering 4yr UG study across China's provinces and municipalities, it helps demonstrate these issues.  




The 119 Key Universities listed in the table above refer to those universities which are members of the prestigious Project 211 group of universities.  This group of 119 also includes the 39 Project 985 elite universities, which in turn includes the C9 Group of China's most famous universities.  

While I don't have exact numbers for Gaokao candidates in each province for 2012, we can look at Jiangsu, Shanghai, Guangdong, Shandong and Zhejiang provinces (the wealthiest provinces in China's coastal region) to illustrate the point.  

Population Top Universities Total 4yr Universities
Shanghai 23m 9 44
Jiangsu 79m 13 62
Guangdong 105m 5 56
Shandong 95m 2 61
Zhejiang  55m 1 56

This system is also subject to the system of "quota negotiation" between provinces.  For example, as Shanghai has many of the most desirable universities, it is in a position to demand uneven swaps with other provinces.  Shanghai can negotiate to send, for example, 100 students to Shandong province, but take only 50 from Shandong province in return due to its bargaining power.  This also favours Shanghai Gaokao candidates at the expense of their compatriots in other provinces.  

OPENING THE GUANGZHOU GAOKAO - ZHANG MING'S COMMENTS

Zhan Haite's case, and the article written by Hong Bing, highlights the opacity and the lack of equality of opportunity in China's Gaokao system.  It is certainly a joke to describe the Gaokao as a national entrance examination, as it is administered provincially and there is a strong bias towards students from certain provinces.  

However, the comments of Zhang Ming, a Professor at Renmin University, towards the end of the article, fail to full recognise the nuances of the system and, to a certain extent, jump on the equal rights bandwagon.   Zhang Ming, for those who haven't heard of him, is one of the most prominent bloggers in academia. He writes extensively on a range f issues, including IR, politics, economics, foreign affairs and HE.  He's one of those spiky and thorny provocateurs that the foreign media love to go to on a range of issues, but who probably has an unhealthy number of enemies in China thanks to his outspoken nature.  Its fair to say, I like him a lot.  His blog can be found here: http://blog.sina.com.cn/zhangming1 

Firstly, this is because Guangzhou itself is not a municipality, but a provincial capital city.  Secondly, because Guangzhou has a huge population with comparatively few top universities.  Thirdly, because the migrant workers in Guangzhou would in many cases, be further disadvantage by taking the Gaokao exam in Guangzhou (for example if they are Hukou residents from any province other than Guangdong, the pass mark required for a Tier 1 score is lower than that required for Guangdong).  Of course, it requires further statistical analysis to assess whether or not migrant workers in Guangzhou would stand a better chance of admission to a good university, but this will require a major investigation and analysis of quantitative data, as well as attempting to understand the impact of resources on educational quality.  

So alterations to the Guangzhou policy on allowing migrant worker children to sit the Gaokao exam is misleading.  It is certainly possible that it will further disadvantage those children and lessen the chances of acceptance to a top university or even gaining access to 4yr UG education at all, especially with such a high Tier 1 cut-off point of 78%+.  This is also probably the reason we see students like Zhan Haite lamenting the fact she cannot take the exam in Shanghai, where it is quite clear that the Shanghai Gaokao offers much better opportunities (lower pass rates, lower competition for places, more prestigious universities) than in other provinces.  

Reform of the Gaokao system is certainly something which many people in China would like to see.  The real issue is, however, insatiable demand and lack of supply of quality education.  Guangzhou has 5 universities deemed top tier to cater for a population of 105m people.  Even here, only Sun Yatsen and Jinan universities are truly deemed to be outstanding institutions.  There simply are not enough good universities in China to cater for demand and while enrolment rates currently stand at 26%, expected to reach 40% of university-age students by 2020, the gross enrolment rates in major urban centres such as Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other major cities is already well in excess of 80%.  

The Gaokao exam, however, is likely to stay.  And the overwhelming reason for this is that it is, for all its foibles and inconsistencies, a strong bulwark against the tide of academic dishonesty.  It is, practically impossible, as well as criminal offence, to cheat on the Gaokao exam.  It is also now very difficult for corrupt practices within universities to be manipulated by unscrupulous admissions officers, i.e. admitting students for bribes.  And this is why the Gaokao will not be disappearing anytime soon.  What needs to happen is a debate as to how the inequities of the university application system may be addressed, but first we need to really understand the system at the national level and where those inequities lie.  

MG




  


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