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Challenges of the Gaokao System in China - Access and Equity

Challenges of the Gaokao System in China
Access and Equity
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1. Introduction
Beyond doubt, education plays a crucial role in solutions for social inequality.
As a primary approach for individuals to fulfill their potential and to become
competitive in the labor market, it is significant to ensure equal access to higher
education for candidates among different regions, especially in China's society
where there is a huge gap between the socioeconomic levels of urban and rural
However, measures towards equality in higher education access taken by the
Chinese government are under consistent interrogation sometimes. According
to a new policy that China has just implemented, rule makers decide to transfer
160,000 quotas of higher education enrollment from provinces with adequate
educational resources, including southeast coastal areas, to those
disadvantageous provinces whose educational resources are relatively deficient.
It seems like progress from adopting procedural justice to piloting
compensatory justice among areas. Yet, the policymakers are not from
"original point behind the veil of ignorance" (Rawls, 1971). Beijing and
Shanghai remain the most privileged cities, and the largest percentage of quota
is not from them but from Hubei and Jiangsu where the competition in Gaokao
(the Chinese National College Entrance Examination) has already been much
fiercer than most areas in China.
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Taking into consideration the historical antecedents as well as uneven
socioeconomic development, how to make the decision of who can go to
colleges? This paper focuses on the Gaokao admission process in Chinese
higher education system, evaluates the contemporary enrollment policies of
colleges and universities, examines the inequality of higher education access
among different regions and, at last, provide suggestions and recommendations
to current policies.
2. Background
2.1. Massification of the Higher Education
As national university entrance examination (Gaokao) was restored after the
disastrous Cultural Revolution in 1977, the development of Chinese higher
education came back to track. Among 5.7 million applicants participating in
Gaokao nationwide, only approximately 270,000 were recruited in colleges and
universities. That is to say, the enrollment rate in 1977 is less than 5 percent
(Ngok, 2008). In the next twenty years, the number only increased by one point
and reached about 6 percent (World Bank, 2014).
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Table 1: Gross Enrollment Ratio of Tertiary Education in China
In 1998, a turning point in the development of higher education in China, the
Ministry of Education issued the Action Plan to Vitalize Education in the 21
Century, in which goals were set that the university gross enrolment rate will
reach 15 percent by the year of 2010 (MOE, 1998). The next decades witness
an explosive expansion of Chinese higher education system. The gross
enrollment rate of Chinese higher education increased to 23.9 percent in 2010
and 39.4 percent in 2014 (see Table 1.) (World Bank, 2014). Chinese higher
education has been transitioning from elite to mass education (Xue, 2006).
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Despite the massification of higher education in China, the gap of access to
colleges and universities among different areas has been widening due to the
regional quotas which will expatiate in following sections.
2.2. Cultural Context of Gaokao
China is a country of tests, and gaokao is, beyond doubt, the most wide-ranging
and powerful one. With a large population and limited resources, competition
is inevitable in China. In a society with such fierce competitions, the issue of
equity is of the most concern. Yet, as people are highly connected with each
other in eastern culture, especially in China, the connection and its attendant
corruption has played the most disturbing role in the pursuit of social equity.
Thus, tests, in which all candidates are judged by the same set of criteria
regardless of their connection networks, have been believed to be the fairest
way of competition and thus applied in almost every selecting decision.
Historically, the national civil service exams, the predecessor of Gaokao in
ancient China, were considered as the fairest system in the country since Song
dynasty. As a fair criterion of gauging ability, it had been the only way for
people at the bottom of the society to get rid of the exorbitant taxes and levies
and to move upward in the highly hierarchical society (Liu, 1996b). Thus, the
civil service exam system had been regarded as the foundation of equity
throughout the Chinese history (Wang, 1965). Gradually, a belief in the
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fairness of exams, and a pursuit of fairness in exams have been imprinted into
the mind of most Chinese people" (Liu & Wu, 2006).
As Chinese people emphasize on interpersonal connections so much, an
admission system like Gaokao in which participants are predominantly judged
by test scores beyond maneuver of anyone seems compatible with the cultural
and social context of China. However, Gaokao, entrusted with too many
responsibilities, has gone far beyond its scope of education and thus has given
rise to many social problems nationwide.
2.3. The Adoption of Gaokao system
China has its logic for adopting a centralized college admission system with a
unified exam as its primary component. In 1949, to bring the higher education
system back on track after decades of stagnation in the time of war, colleges
and universities all over the China implemented their admission policy to enroll
students. Those new admission practices required students go to every
university they applied to for application procedures including exams, which is
particularly inconvenient and expensive for students from remote regions.
What's more, an unbalanced number of applicants among higher education
institutions was another concern. Top universities received applications times
more than their admission quotas whereas other universities could not enroll
enough students. At the same time, top students were admitted by more than
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one colleges and universities, so the registration rates ranged only from 20
percent to 75 percent (Liu & Wu, 2006).
As a response to this situation, many universities joined in a national unified
enrollment stage where each applicant would be admitted by no more than one
university and those who failed to get into their dream schools might be
enrolled in other colleges that had not received enough applicants. In this way,
almost every higher education institution enrolled enough students, and
registration rates increased dramatically ever since.
Regarded as an effective and successful practice, the unified enrollment was
officially adopted by the Ministry of Education in 1952 in place of the
university-administered admission, which required all higher education
institutions participate in the national unified admission test (Liu, 1996a). It
was, at that time, a great benefit for universities as well as all candidates for it
significantly facilitated the admission process.
2.4. The Structure of Gaokao Administration
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Table 2: The Structure of Education Administration
As a tool of central planning on access to higher education, Gaokao is under
the authority and control of the Ministry of Education, the Central Government
(Davey, et al., 2007). There are four levels in the structure, which parallels the
education administrative and political structure of Chinese government. To be
specific, the Ministry of Education reserves the right to determine the overall
number of annual enrollment of higher education institutions, content to test,
the provincial quotas and the cut-off admissions score line. The Department of
Education at the provincial level takes the responsibility of printing and
distributing the test papers to next administrative levels, including
prefectural/city levels. Also, they are responsible for supervising the whole
Gaokao and admission process. At the prefectural/city and county level, the
education bureaus are in charge of keeping the confidential files of applicants,
and also, make recommendations to the higher level of the Department of
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Education. As the lowest level of the administrative structure, Education
Bureaus of the county level evaluates the qualifications of applicants, organizes
and manages the Gaokao (See Table 2).
Despite the general trend of decentralization in the educational sector,
including fiscal and funding of higher education, after China open its door to
the world in 1978, the administration system remains highly centralized for
decades. It is the centralization of this system that makes it remarkably difficult
to transform.
3. Issues existing in Gaokao System
The Gaokao is a major educational and social event that concerns millions of
families every year, and there are rarely any other educational issues that
receive such consistent and extensive attention in China. As is believed the
fairest selective test, Gaokao takes on the huge responsibility of determining
who can go to the college. Although there has been various of amendments
added and reforms proposed since it was established to protect its fairness from
the intervention of cheating and corruption, there are still many inequalities
existing in this complicated system.
Shortly after the Gaokao was resumed in 1977, all provinces in China adopted
the same set of exam paper in order to ensure the “procedural equity” among
candidates nationwide (Mendes & Srighanthan, 2009). Yet due to the
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unbalanced development of different provinces and regions, the gaps of the
quality of K-12 education, as well as the number of HEIs among areas become
more and more salient. As an attempt to reduce the inequality caused by the
huge gap of economic development, Beijing (in 2002) and Shanghai (in 1987)
took the lead in introducing specific Gaokao questions to fit better the specific
curriculum adopted by each city (Wang, 2010). And by the year of 2006, a total
of 16 provinces/municipalities had experimented to design their own Gaokao
papers so as to eliminate the inequity of the regional discrepancy. Nonetheless,
the inequality still exists since the admission process of different regions and
universities remains highly centralized (Sun, 2016).
3.1. Inequality of Regional Quota System
Regional quota system refers to a set of enrollment policy which regulates that
fixed quotas of enrollment numbers are allocated to each province/municipality
by the state. Under this system, every university has a fixed number of students
that they can admit from each province, with the highest percentage coming
from the province where universities are located. Resumed in 1977, this system
of enrollment quotas allocation has been perfected after decades of rectification.
Despite the attempt to ensure social and educational equity, this system is still
under consistent interrogation of its inherent inequality.
Regional differences are of the most concern. Compared to other regions, the
situation seems unfavorable for students in western and central China,
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especially for those provinces with over 500,000 applicants taking Gaokao per
year, including Henan, Shandong. According to Ye from Sohu Educational
Report, for example, in the year of 2008, the quota of access to Peking
University allocating to 988,000 examinees in Henan Province is 79 while the
quota allocating to 118000 applicants in Beijing is 282. That is to say, the
opportunity of getting into Peking University for students in Beijing is 24 times
of that for students in Henan. After five years, however, the number increased
to 31 times, which means that it has become harder and harder for students in
Henan to be enrolled in one of the most prestigious university though the gross
enrollment rate has been increasing over the years (2015). “Students from
Beijing, though fewer in number, are accepted to Chinese top tier universities
at much higher rates than those from other provinces (Fu, 2013).”
3.1.1. Possible Explanation for Regional Inequality
The primary reason for the inequality lies in the unbalanced distribution of
higher education institutions among different regions in China.
There are six levels of collegiate types, including national direct, national other
administered, National Key Universities, Provincial, Municipal, and Private
Universities in Chinese higher education system. National higher education
institutions are mainly financed by Ministry of Education under the central
government, and thus are supposed to provide equal access to students from all
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over the country. While the provincial and lower levels of higher education
institutions are primarily funded by the local government or private sectors, and
thus enroll a relatively higher percentage of local students. However, the most
common cases are that local students share the highest percentage of the
regional quota of higher education institutions no matter whether the HEIs are
funded the local government or not. Consequently, the regional quotas are
distributed paralleling the geographical distribution of higher education
To a great extent, the geographical discrimination of access to higher education
result from the uneven distribution of universities, especially for those top
universities referring to the Project “985”1 and “211”2 Key Universities. To
be specific, there are 26 higher education institutions are located in Beijing and
10 in Shanghai, more than those in western and central areas in total. Compared
with Beijing and Shanghai, most underdeveloped provinces have only one
university or college that is in the top tier higher education institutions in China.
1 Project 985 is one of the constructive projects for founding world-class universities
in the 21st century conducted by the Chinese central government in May 1985. In the
initial phase, nine universities were included in the project. The second phase,
launched in 2004, expanded the program until it has now reached almost 40
universities (Zhang, 2008).
2 Project 211 is the Chinese government's endeavor aimed at strengthening about
100 HEIs as a national priority for the twenty-first century, primarily aiming at
training high-level professional workforce to implement the national strategy for
social and economic development (Li, 2004).
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For instance, Zhengzhou University, as the only “211 university in Henan
province, serves for about 800,000 candidates in this area per year. With a small
number of quality higher education institutions to serve such a large population,
Henan provides its students one of the lowest numbers of higher educational
resources per capita, and thus one of the lowest admission quotas among
regions nationwide. As a result, the cut-off score for students from Henan
province to enroll in universities is much higher than those from another
province, even if the exam they take is the same one.
Therefore, in spite of the explosive increase in the number of higher education
institutions and the national gross enrollment rate, the gap of average access to
colleges and universities, especially for the most prestigious ones, among
different provinces and regions are still rather hard to be bridged in the short
3.1.2. The Recent Reform and the Consequences
On April 25th, 2016, in order to reduce the regional inequality in higher
education access, the Chinese government decided to relocate the admission
quota from provinces/regions with relatively more abundant higher education
resources to those with fewer tertiary educational resources. According to the
Cross-province Admission Quota Relocation Plan issued by Ministry of
Education, Chinese government plan to relocate 160,000 admission quota from
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12 provinces/municipals to another ten provinces, most of them located in the
western and central China (MOE, 2016) (See Table 3).
Table 3 Cross-province Admission Quota Relocation Plan
Source: MOE, 2016
As the statistics in Table 3 indicates, among all 160,000 quotas transferred to
the western and central area, the largest percentage is from Hubei (40,000) and
Jiangsu (38,000) where the opportunities of enrolling in universities and
colleges are not as adequate as those in many other regions and areas (MOE,
2016). Whereas Shanghai and Beijing remain the most privileged regions, even
after taking into consideration of the overall number of higher education
institutions and the number of applicants per year. The former transfer 5000
quotas to other provinces while the latter doesn’t transfer any of them. On the
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other hand, as one of the provinces with the poorest higher educational
resources, Gansu doesn’t in the plan receiving any quotas from other regions.
The regional discrimination caused by the provincial quota system has brought
about many serious social problems in China. Some parents seek to transfer the
schooling profile of their children from the district where their household are
registered to another province/region with more admission quota and higher
enrollment rate. This phenomenon is called "Gaokao Migration”. Different
from the regular cross-province migration, the Gaokao migrants only move to
the other province for the last year of senior high school in order to attend the
Gaokao as a local student of the receiving regions which enjoy more admission
quotas. Or even worse, they only transfer their spurious schooling profile and
records to the receiving province instead of actually attending schools there, so
as to participate the Gaokao exam and to be enrolled as local students without
moving to another city. The destinations of Gaokao migration are mainly
concentrated in three areas. The primary destination is the most developed
megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, where the admission rates top
the regions all over China. Another one is a less developed province, like
Hainan, where the number of applicants is rather low, and thus the competition
is not as fierce as other areas. And the third one is the western area, including
Xinjiang and Tibet, where the ethnic minorities are clustered and enjoy some
preferential policies on the admission process.
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The Gaokao migration becomes a common phenomenon, especially in
provinces like Henan and Anhui where the competition is rather intense despite
the governmental restrictions. On the other hand, this situation indicates the
Gaokao system's vulnerability to corruptions and maneuvers by connections,
which pose a considerable threat to the equality to students from both the
original cities and the receiving cities.
3.2. Inequality of Admission Recommendation Policies
The admission recommendation policies refer to a set of American-style
college admission system piloting in some pioneer universities in China. Under
such policy, middle schools recommend students with outstanding performance
or special talents, and universities rely on multiple measures to evaluate the
qualification of recommended applicantsstandard test scores, academic
performance in high school, letters of recommendation and any additional
evidence of special talents or experiences. Students who have been admitted to
universities on the recommendation will not have to take the national college
entrance examination, the only measure on which the traditional admission
Initially, the admission recommendation policies were adopted as an attempt to
provide access for those students who are not so good at regurgitating
information for exams and thereby alleviate the damage of test-oriented K-12
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education. After several years, however, it has been under consistent
interrogation against its integrity and fairness, and even worse, such
controversy has pushed the policy on the edge of being abandoned in the next
couple of years.
One of the possible explanation is its inability to guarantee the fairness during
the special admission process which will lead to the inequality among students
from a different family background. As Luo reported in his research on Gaokao
enrollment policies, there are large disparities in admission rates of being
recommended to higher education institutions students from among students
from different social classes (2007). According to the statistics Luo provided,
opportunities for children of the state and local administrators are seventy-three
times higher than those of farmers with a rural/agricultural household
registration. Due to lack of standard criteria, the recommendation admission
process could be manipulated by the human influence despite the rigid
restrictions and regulations. Consequently, these policies have failed to
promote the upward mobility as policymakers initially expected and become a
mechanism to maintain the existing social hierarchy instead.
3.3. Inequality of Independent Enrollment Policies of HEIs
Under regulations of the Ministry of Education as well as other educational
authorities, higher education institutions independently design selection criteria
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and an enrollment scheme by their own professional and academic
characteristics. Complying with the requirement of "distribute higher education
places by ability," independent enrollment policies are operated on merit-based
principles in order to select out students with creative abilities, exceptional
skills, and talents and to avoid that they are blocked accessing to higher
education by awarding bonus points on their scores in college entrance
Similar to the recommendation policies, however, we find that the inequality
exists among students from different socioeconomic background when
examining the process of policy implementation. Statistics shows that the vast
majority of applicants meeting the criteria of independent enrollment schemes
possess considerably more cultural capital than other students (Luo, 2007).
Although it is possible to obtain such cultural resources via individual efforts
over the years, it is mostly acquired through socioeconomic hierarchical
reproduction from their families. Among the 53 higher education institutions
having their own independent enrollment schemes, 14 explicitly restrict their
enrollment to students graduated from top province-level secondary schools
(Wang, 2010). Beyond doubt, this practice has deprived students from average
secondary schools of the right to independent enrollment. Additionally, the
requirements of being enrolled by independent policies are exceptionally high
for students from ordinary senior high schools. Examining the criteria specified
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by diverse universities, requirements including prize winner of a
national/international level scientific and technological innovation contest are
explicitly pointed out in the application criteria (Wang, 2008), which
undoubtedly increases the opportunities of urban students and inexorably put
rural students at a disadvantageous place.
4. Conclusion
An ideal admission system should be one that takes other things than the score
of standardized tests into consideration, including intellectual ability,
innovative potentials as well as leadership. However, its not feasible to
contemporary Chinese society. Most reforms and changes, including the
recommendation policies and the independent enrollment, with aspirational
intention at the beginning have ended up with being suspended or canceled due
to their vulnerability to corruption and cheating. Although gaokao might be the
most effective and fair practice adopted by the Chinese government, it will
never be perfect to protect the equity of admission process from the influence
of human maneuver. Therefore, we suggest that government establish an
academic community within faculty and others in the higher education system
where everyone should be responsible for their recommendations and any other
admission decisions.
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Besides the Gaokao system itself, many other social factors are in the way of
pursuing equality in the access to higher education. Substantially, the inequality
of Gaokao system is in line with the unbalanced level of development among
different regions and areas in China. Plus, restrictions of the household
registration system have tied people up at where they are registered, which
deprive people of the right of free inner migration and in turn exacerbate the
regional inequality by hindering the social mobility. Another factor that might
result in the current situation is the disaccord of policies in different periods. In
the first phase of higher education development, the Chinese government was
eager to keep pace with the western countries by directing its investment mostly
on a few top higher education institutions like "985" "211" universities, leading
to huge gaps among different universities. While the inequality in access to the
higher education has become the greatest concern, educational authorities are
now considering to call off the distinction of funding between “211” and “non-
211” institutions. Therefore, reforms on the system itself would be too
superficial to touch on the actual problems. Policymakers are supposed to be
more foresighted to make the changes by the cultural and social context of
Chinese higher education system. We recommend that government should
place its emphasis on bridging the gap of the number of HEIs as well as regional
quotas among different provinces and municipals to ensure the higher
education accessible to students from all regions and socioeconomic
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... The social position of parents has an apparent preponderance during race of gaokao and admission to universities. Outstanding academic performance can be attributed to parents who manage to guarantee their children success in exams (BIGGS, 1998;LIU, 2016;KAI, 2012;LIU, 2016;YU, 2017), dedicating all their energy and income into one objective. In some cases mothers will resign to entirely support their children during the phase while those teenagers are absorbed in preparation for gaokao. ...
... The social position of parents has an apparent preponderance during race of gaokao and admission to universities. Outstanding academic performance can be attributed to parents who manage to guarantee their children success in exams (BIGGS, 1998;LIU, 2016;KAI, 2012;LIU, 2016;YU, 2017), dedicating all their energy and income into one objective. In some cases mothers will resign to entirely support their children during the phase while those teenagers are absorbed in preparation for gaokao. ...
... Chinese students, the momentousness that families attach to children's scholastic triumph is intimately related to some particularities intrinsic in Chinese culture, specifically, the culture of giving priority to education of juniors and of thrift. Liu (2016) reckons that in China the values of putting education of children in the first place makes Chinese parents try their utmost to find the best educational options for their children. In parallel, the traditional virtue of thrift contributes to accumulation and allocation of resources for education. ...
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China's Unfair College Admissions System. The Atlantic
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Fu, Y. (2013). China's Unfair College Admissions System. The Atlantic. Retrieved Dec. 7, 2016 from
Zhongguo gaoxiao zhaosheng kaoshizhong de quyu gongping yanjiu
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Li, Lifeng. 2007. Zhongguo gaoxiao zhaosheng kaoshizhong de quyu gongping yanjiu [Research on the Regional Fairness of China College Student Enrollment Tests]. Wuhan: Central China Normal University Press, 198-99.
On traditional culture and gaokao reforms. Shanghai Higher Education Researches, 1
  • H Liu
Liu, H. (1996a). On traditional culture and gaokao reforms. Shanghai Higher Education Researches, 1, 42 45.