When I took the gaokao — China’s notoriously difficult college entrance exam — in 1998, it was a nerve-wracking experience. I barely slept in the days leading up to it and both my parents took three days off from work in order to accompany me to the test center every day. For years afterward, I had chronic nightmares of trying to solve the final math problem in the gaokao, but failed every time.
In reality, the opposite occurred. I received a perfect score in the math portion of the exam and was accepted into Peking University. Actually, two-thirds of my high school class — we were in a special accelerated stream — got into Peking or Tsinghua University, the two most prestigious colleges in China.
We had been privileged enough to attend one of the best high schools in Beijing, and all of the students were exceptionally smart. But I learned shortly after beginning classes at Peking that, in most other provinces of China, even the best class in the best high school would be lucky to have one student get into our university.
It wasn’t until I became a sociologist later in life that I would fully begin to grasp the serious inequalities in China’s higher education system.
Most universities in China are public schools administered by the government. The Ministry of Education and its local subsidiaries limit the number of students from each province that can attend any given university. These quotas range from as many as a thousand for local students to as few as 20 or 30 from provinces outside of where the university is located.
The best universities in China are concentrated in major cities along the eastern coast — especially in Beijing and Shanghai. As a result, students in these cities enjoy much higher admissions rates to these universities than students from other provinces.
The problem is aggravated by China’s rigid household registration system, the hukou, which makes it difficult for a student to move their residency across provincial borders
But despite the extreme inequality across provinces that this top-down system of college admission fosters, the system itself isn’t without merit. Some argue that the entrance exam, the gaokao, is merit-based and thus equal for everyone within a province, regardless of family backgrounds or political connections.
This was the case for my generation. Many of my classmates at Peking University came from rural areas or relatively humble social backgrounds. I myself grew up in an ordinary working-class family in Beijing.
We were able to receive the best college education in China simply because we were good students who excelled in the gaokao. It is not an exaggeration to say that the gaokao was one of the most important mechanisms of social mobility in China in the late 20th century since its revival after the Cultural Revolution.
But this has changed. As China gets richer, the distribution of its educational resources has become increasingly uneven, especially noticeable between urban and rural areas and between families with and without means.
Since the government’s massive higher education expansion in 1999, the annual number of admitted college students has swelled to more than 6 million. According to the Educational Statistics Yearbook of China, this number was 1.16 million in 1998. And yet, it is much harder today for rural students from poor counties to reach first-tier universities in China simply because they aren’t offered the same quality of primary and secondary education as students in more affluent regions are.
Even for most families in Beijing and Shanghai, sending their children to an elite high school has become a luxury. Although the gaokao remains merit-based, the educational system that prepares students for the exam has become much more stratified.
Are students from wealthier families on the eastern coast happy about the gaokao? Apparently not. I have been teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — a major public university in the United States — since 2009 and have witnessed a steady increase in the number of Chinese undergraduate students on campus every year.
Not surprisingly, the majority of these students come from the affluent coastal provinces, such as Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, where quotas for the top Chinese universities are small but plenty of families can afford to send their children abroad for college. Even rich families in Beijing and Shanghai are abandoning the gaokao and opting for schools in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia.
Yet the gaokao remains the only hope for millions of Chinese families who can’t afford the expensive four-year tuition abroad or prefer to keep their children closer to home. This is why thousands of parents in the provinces of Jiangsu and Hubei, as well as a couple other provinces, took to the streets in mid-May when the Ministry of Education moved 160,000 admission quotas from there to the western provinces with the intention of reducing interregional inequality in educational attainment.
The outrage of these parents is straightforward: Why Jiangsu? Why not Beijing or Shanghai, where quotas for local students are much higher?
I doubt any government official could provide an acceptable answer. The quota system for college admissions is appalling and blatantly discriminatory, which benefits the privileged at the expense of the disadvantaged. And every Chinese student who has to go through this system is a victim of it.
The problem is especially salient for the children of migrant workers. Many of them grew up in the eastern coast but have to return to the province where their hukou is registered to take the gaokao — where admission quotas are often significantly lower.
Recently, southern China’s Guangdong province passed a law allowing children of migrants to take the gaokao in Guangdong, yet similar efforts in Beijing and Shanghai have encountered strong resistance by local residents.
Unfortunately, simply abolishing the quota system won’t make a huge difference. After all, educational inequality is a global problem, and most public universities around the world draw a higher percentage of their students locally, regardless of admission quotas.
The fundamental problem facing China is the extremely uneven distribution of good colleges across the different regions. The Ministry of Education has prioritized the top schools along the eastern coast when allocating funding and resources, but has left schools in the inland and western provinces high and dry.
Under such a rigid administrative system, it is nearly impossible for any school to rapidly improve its quality and move up the ranks, and students in poorer provinces have a much harder time getting into good colleges.
To this extent, the gaokao is merely a scapegoat for the much larger problems of inequality in China’s educational system. The exam is no longer the fair process to upward social mobility. Students from well-to-do urban families are most likely to succeed within the system, or simply go abroad if not.
China faces an increasingly rigid social stratification in the future. That is no country for fair education, and the only potential solution is to shift attention away from the gaokao to the more fundamental problems in the education system.
(Header image: A girl attends class at Xingzhi Primary School, a school specifically for migrant children in Beijing, Dec. 28, 2004. Cancan Chu/Getty Images/VCG)