Freeing the Slaves to Exams
Recently a 400 square meter home in western Beijing went on sale for a cool 130 million yuan. That's an astronomical sum, even for a piece of property advertized as being near a good school that guarantees entrance for the buyers' children.
As news spread of the over-the-top price tag for this "school district house," the Chinese public could not help lamenting the difficulties in 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 does not exist just between urban and 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 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. They are subject to the jurisdiction of local governments and are supported by local finance. The constitution stipulates the principle of equality and of the citizen's right to education. All public schools are required to meet funding minimums per student and provide essential facilities and quality teachers.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality. Even in the capital, the quality of teaching staff in different parts of the city or in different schools of the same district can be 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
Inequality in China's compulsory education is not due to legal requirements, but mainly to 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 gaokao, 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 gaokao system is the symptom rather than the cause of what is 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 started, the number of colleges and universities has increased considerably. In the first few years after the gaokao 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 percent.
However, in the eyes of both parents and pupils, the worthy institutions 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 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 into public institutions. Chinese people's IQs are as good as other people around the world, so why can't they manage to have a decent undergraduate educational system? Why is it that even though China has the world's largest number of doctoral graduates, we claim no Nobel Prize winners in science and are unable to build our own undergraduate educational brands?
The answer is simple. The state educational bureaucracy is too present in regulating higher education, with poor results. From giving permission to set up a college, to restricting enrollment and deciding who gets how much 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 establishment 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 a certain extent, it has introduced the market economy. The lack of progress in China's education sector 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 to pass higher education entrance exams will remain high, quality education will never be established, and phenomena such as school-choosing fees or school-district housing are bound to continue.
But what it means most, in real terms, is that every Chinese child is destined to be the slave of exams from the day they're born.
The author is a law professor at Peking University
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