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High school students going to pass the Gao Kao exam
High school students going to pass the Gao Kao exam
Zhang Qianfan

Recently a home of 400 square meters was put on sale for a cool $21.2 million. That’s an astronomical sum, even for a piece of property advertized as being located adjacent to a good school that guarantees any entrance to the school for the children of the buyers.

As news spread of this over-the-top pricetag for this "school district house," the Chinese public couldn't help lamenting the difficulties of giving their own children a quality education. Despite repeated prohibitions, schools continue to charge "school-choosing fees," which exacerbate inequalities in the compulsory education delivered by schools.

This divide doesn't exist just between the urban and the rural regions or between different provinces and cities, but also between different districts of the same city or even different schools in the same district of a city.

The reason why parents are willing to pay such high special fees, or buy a very costly home near one of the few excellent schools, is simple: people are dissatisfied with the level of education in their own district, and have the means to pay for the privilege of sending their children to the best schools possible.

Public schools provide the vast majority of China's compulsory education. Public schools are subject to the jurisdiction of local governments and are supported by local finance. The Chinese Constitution stipulates the principle of equality and of the citizen’s right to education. All public schools are required to meet the funding minimums per student, essential facilities, and quality standards for hiring teachers.

Unfortunately the reality doesn't correspond to such basic levels of service Even in the capital city, Beijing, the quality of teaching staff in different parts of the city or in different schools of the same district can be like day and night. Though there is also "school district housing" in other countries, their prices are not as outrageous as in China.

The real prize

However, this criticism is not enough, because the inequality in China's compulsory education does not lie in the legal requirements, but mainly in the imbalance between supply and demand.

Most Chinese parents are "utilitarian." Their ultimate objective in sending their children to schools is not for the education, but for the Gao-kao, the university entrance exam. When Chinese people talk about the "quality of education" they are mainly measuring it with the percentage of students admitted to the key national universities, prestigious academic institutions that receive more central government financial support. Under this examination-oriented mode, a good school is one that provides the "devil training" that focuses children's natural ability toward test-taking. This has long been contrary to the intention of compulsory education.

For the vast majority of Chinese families, the years of hardship and devotion in studying is all about making it to the best universities. Still, the existing irrational and often inhuman Gao-kao system is the sympton rather than the cause of what's wrong. The intense pressure of the exam-oriented education system comes from the fact that China's quality universities are in short supply, reverberating all the way down to elementary schools and even kindergartens.

Since China's reform and opening-up, the number of colleges and universities has increased considerably. In the first few years after Gao-kao was resumed (it was absent during the Cultural Revolution), about one-tenth of the candidates passed the academic exam to go to university. Today, the admission ratio is over 70%.

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Highscool in China - Photo : Dududu

However, in both parents’ and pupils' eyes, the worthy ones are still the few well-known universities that have long histories. Even put together, the more than 100 colleges can accommodate only a few hundred thousand candidates. The most prestigious universities are in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which set a fixed quota that excludes candidates from other provinces.

How can one not to expect fierce competition if there are more than 9 million candidates each year fighting under unequal rules to be one of the few hundred thousand to be enrolled? Why after so many years are there still only a handful of good colleges in China?

This takes us from the terrain of economics to public institutions. Chinese people's IQ are as good as other people in the world, so why can't they even manage to have a decent undergraduate education system? Why is it that even though China has the world's largest number of doctoral graduates, we claim no Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, and are unable to build our own undergraduate education brands?

Building education "brands"

The answer is simple. China's state educational bureaucracy is too present in regulating higher education, with poor results. From giving permission to set up a college, to restricting the high places in the sequence of enrollments and deciding who gets how much financial investment, the government's educational management seriously restricts and discriminates against private schools.

It also divides national universities into different ranks or grades. Whether we speak of funds or policy, the invested resources of the Chinese government are concentrated in only a few universities. The consequence is students only aspire to the few elite universities favored by the government.

Were the setting-up of colleges freed up and discrimination in enrollment abolished, one would see the overwhelming aura of universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University evaporate. They'd be obliged to cast aside their postures and compete with the newcomers.

Real brands in education, as elsewhere, are established when there is free competition. The Chinese economy has boomed because, to certain extent, it has introduced the market economy. While the lack of progress of China's education after all these years can be explained largely because it is still under planned management.

Unless this pattern is broken quality universities will remain a "rare resource" in China. The pressure of passing higher education entrance exams will remain high, quality education will never be established, and phenomena such as school-choosing fees or school-district housing is bound to be continue.

But what it means most, in real terms, is that every Chinese kid is destined to be the slave of exams from the day they're born.

*Zhang Qianfan is a professor at the Law School of Peking University

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