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2019-08-12 09:47:11

Update: On Aug. 15, Henan’s higher education admissions office said that the leaked screenshot of its correspondence with Peking University had been obtained “without authorization” from a computer at an unnamed county-level admissions office. The provincial office has asked that the relevant authorities investigate the matter.

One of China’s top universities will admit two students from rural Henan province after its initial objections over the students’ low test scores prompted a public outcry.

There had been “noncompliance” in handling the students’ digital applications, Peking University wrote in a social media post Sunday, adding that it had begun the process of accepting the two students, ranked seventh and eighth under Henan’s special enrolment plan for rural students. Peking had previously tried to reject the two students — who were assigned to the school by China’s university admission system — for scoring over 100 points lower on the gaokao, China’s grueling college entrance exam, compared with other students the school admitted from Henan this year.

By Monday afternoon, a hashtag translating to “Peking University to readmit rejected Henan students” had been viewed 540 million times on Weibo, even reaching the top spot on the microblogging platform’s trending topics list at one point.

In 2012, China’s central government introduced the concept of special enrollment plans, aimed at helping students in 680 poverty-stricken counties go to college and bridging the gap between them and their more privileged peers in cities. Though the plans vary by province, they center around offering preferential admission to students with lower gaokao scores.

In the days before Peking University announced its reversal, a photograph of a document purportedly showing the school’s exchange with Henan’s higher education admissions office, the body responsible for the assignments, went viral on Chinese social media. According to the unverified document, Peking had tried three times to get the eighth-ranked student assigned elsewhere, arguing that, because his test score was low, he would “very likely fail his classes and get expelled if admitted” — a view that was poorly received by netizens.

Domestic media later identified the student referenced in the document as a boy surnamed Zhao from Xincai No. 1 High School in Henan’s Xincai County. A netizen believed to be Zhao had first posted the photo on the Quora-like forum website Zhihu on July 20, along with an account of his situation. He later edited the post to say that he had decided to retake the gaokao, before finally deleting it altogether on July 31, according to a version history of the post.

An employee from Xincai’s university admissions office confirmed to Sixth Tone on Monday that both the students involved in this case were from the county but declined to answer further questions. Sixth Tone’s repeated phone calls to Xincai No. 1 High School went unanswered Friday and Monday.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a think tank in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that, given the rules of university admissions, it seems unreasonable to reject students who are matched according to enrolment procedures. “The reason these students with low scores were matched with Peking University is because this year, Peking was not the preferred destination for top-scoring rural students under the special enrollment plan,” Xiong said, alluding to the fact that the national admission system takes into account both the students’ scores and their top choices for schools — two variables that, when considered together, have been known to produce some surprising pairings.

Though rare, it’s not unheard-of for below-average students to be admitted to elite universities. In 2017, Tsinghua University — Beijing’s other top school — admitted a student from the northeastern Heilongjiang province who had also scored far below the university’s average.

“Since the matching process is implemented according to the (special enrollment) plans, the students don’t know their relative rankings when they submit their preference lists, and so the universities can’t independently set baselines for test scores,” Xiong said. “This makes the whole process a game of chance for both students and universities.”

To ensure that they get the cream of the academic crop, top-tier universities like Peking and Tsinghua also compete against each other to earn the No. 1 spot on students’ preference lists, as the influential domestic magazine People documented in 2014.

Zhou Chunmei graduated from Tsinghua’s journalism school in July. As a former volunteer for the university’s admissions office, she says things like this happen. “There are good years and bad years,” Zhou told Sixth Tone. “We compete against Peking to get the top students and establish a higher baseline score for the year.” If a school admits a few low-scoring students, this affects the overall average, she explained.

In many cases, universities begin eyeing rising stars as early as two years before the gaokao, often through backchannel communications with top high schools. “Say you perform well on the gaokao and there’s one university that approaches you while the others just leave you alone — you’ll certainly be inclined (to choose them),” a Tsinghua Ph.D. candidate surnamed Zhuang, who also volunteered for the school’s undergraduate admissions office, told Sixth Tone.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: VCG)