High school students in China just sat the annual national college entrance examination that started on June 7, 2013, hoping to secure a place in a leading university by acing the test - a privilege still seen by many as a passport to future success.
Known as Gaokao, the test lasts two to three days, depending on different geographic locations, and is the sole determinant for university admission for this year’s nine million examinees.
As in the past, newspapers and TV broadcasts were inundated with quirky reports about the Gaokao, from disastrous tardy arrivals and a bra ban introduced to deter cheating, to student's credential card losses. What they seemed to gloss over, however, is the troubled higher education system that awaits the Gaokao hopefuls.
A great leap forward in higher education
In 1999, the Chinese government initiated ambitious plans designed to provide human capital for the economic take-off and galvanize sluggish domestic demand by expanding access to higher education. That year alone, the number of university students in China soared to four million, up from the 3.4 million a year earlier, as data from the Ministry of Education showed.
Now 37 million students are studying at some 2,400 universities across the country, making the Chinese higher education system the world’s largest.
Although the expansion has allowed more people to enter universities, the rapid spike in student number is no longer seen as welcome news.
According to the Beijing Evenning News, the Ministry of Education publicly admitted, in 2008, the reckless nature of the swelling enrollment rate. One of the consequences was the ensuing strain on teaching resources as more students swarmed into university campuses. In a 2009 article, the government's mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily chimed in, listing problems such as declining academic quality, an unbalanced student-teacher ratio and employment challenges.
The mounting pressure to find work after studies, in particular, is a pain experienced by many. A record number of seven million university students are expected to graduate this summer. With another 2.5 million non-graduates eyeing employment, Du Yubo, vice minister of Education, has warned of an enormous challenge for graduates to land a job.The Global Times reported that over 70 percent of students graduating this year remain jobless.
Corruption and academic fraud
China in recent years has seen a spate of corruption cases at the top of universities, highlighting the administrative dysfunction that has come to erode the integrity of many institutes of higher learning.
Media reports and analysts have attributed the phenomenon to a wave of school infrastructure expansion in the wake of university enrollment proliferation.The infrastructure construction projects to accommodate more students are sometimes taken advantage by university staff to seek illegal financial gains.
In the two months leading up to the 2013 national college entrance examination, three university heads in China's southwestern Sichuan province were placed under investigation for severe principle violations. Media reports alluded to their misbehavior in financial management as reasons for their fall from grace.
In May 2013, Zhou Wenbin, head of Nanchang University in Central China, was under investigation for serious discipline violations. The university built its new campus on the outskirts of the city in early 2000s, covering two million square meters. Its school gate, joked by netizens as the “ gate of Asia”, is rumored to have cost three million yuan, or nearly half a million US dollars, to build.
The Chinese government presides over the appointment of university heads, making them quasi-government officials who sometimes value bureaucratic power and privileges over integrity.
Another pressing issue riveting universities in the country is a widespread academic impotence, with a number of cases of thesis plagiarism and academic fraud having being brought to light in past years. A study by Wuhan University professor Shen Yan showed that ghostwriting academic thesis was a one billion-yuan business in 2009, and that 70 percent of the published theses were plagiarized.
The trend is unlikely to show signs of easing even though the authorities have vowed to punish such acts. All undergraduates in China are required to finish an academic thesis usually around 8,000 words in their last year, teaching staff sometimes rush to publish theses in order to rise through the ranks.
More options available
Certainly, the bachelor's degree has been devalued after universities began to churn out graduates in greater numbers, but its significance—the minimum requirement for one to qualify for a white-collar, even a blue-collar job–is likely to continue for the decades to come.
In the meantime,the registration for Gaokao has been in decline for a five consecutive years, according to media reports. A growing number of students are looking overseas for universities or choose to find work after they graduate high school.
As China is more than ever determined to maintain the economic momentum and shore up its innovation, the debate over the country's youth, its vast higher education system, and the mechanism to select talents will never disappear from public discourse.
Nothing De Feinini reflected on the Gaokao system on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter:
高考考生人数连年递减 可是高校却年年扩招 这是什么规律 虽说在教育机构泛滥存在的时候来点考验是不错 适者生存 质量提高 但是资金空间浪费太严重了吧 是否过几年高考会成为一种象征式考核手段 之后教育机构就可以利用诸多名义从学生身上榨取经费维持生存或者腐败横生
There has been a continuous decrease in the number of college entrance examination takers, but all universities have been increasing the enrollment. Why is that? It’s rational to use test in the time of excessive educational agencies to promote the competition and quality, but how heavily has the money been squandered?( I wonder) if the college entrance examination would be turned into a symbolic ways of testing? And if the agencies could profit money from students to sustain themselves, or corruption could be rampant.
Taotao De Yulu, a news anchor from China's eastern Zhejiang province, lamented:
Three years ago, I wrote an article titled ‘sharply increasing enrollment in college will lead to disaster to our nation and people’. It was killed for I was believed to disseminate ‘false information’. How about now? The consequences began to show slowly, more and more college students are produced whose quality has been worsening, employment has been more and more difficult, What’s going on in China? Does the nation have to become so impetuous? Do we really have to aim for number one in GDP in the world? The foreigners would still pay no respect to you because you are at best “someone who gets rich overnight”.
Liangyuan Yinzhe from the Southern city of Guangzhou wrote:
An inevitable outcome of university enrollment expansion: University education all become alike, what they offer to society is neither well-rounded talents, skill-oriented graduates, nor high-end talents, becasue of a lack of diversity, people tend to look for job in similar industries, besides, as the society develops, opportunities are not only available to university students, which creates (more) competition, young and inexperienced students will of course lack competitiveness.
A magazine called ‘China reform' posted the following on its Weibo account:
Humanities scholar Ai Qingjiao: the young teachers in universities are in the low end of the academic chain, seeing themselves as the middle or low classes, they are frustrated and have a feeling of declining into decay. They live in an institute culture of rigid system of thesis management and college culture of patriarchic interpersonal relationship. How hard is it to break the dilemma of academics and spirit?
Zhang Min is an outspoken political science professor from Beijing's Renmin University, He wrote on his Tecent Microblogging service:
Colleges are filled with utilitarianism and money worship. Students don’t care about justice and rights, and they aviod face problems head-on. They never believe the teaching from the top, but they never pursue freedom either. The college education has been cultivating them into the single-minded egoists.
Jack Hu contributed Weibo translation to this post.