Competing universities

11:09, November 26, 2010      

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With six months to go before China's college entrance examinations you can smell the tension in the air from the cut-throat competition among the elite institutions of higher learning.

Two university groups, one led by Peking University and one by Tsinghua University, have announced plans to hold their own entrance examinations next year besides the national test.

Does this step herald the beginning of reforms to the national college entrance examinations, or gaokao?

It's too early to cheer and say yes.

The gaokao is in some ways like the American SAT, except that it lasts more than twice as long. The test, offered just once a year, is the means of admission to virtually all Chinese colleges and universities. About three in five students make the cut.

The test illustrates the flaws in the education system that stresses memorization over independent thinking and creativity.

In an increasingly competitive economic environment, the access to a college or university is the key to the student's future. Gaokao failures can expect to begin a lifetime of low-income work, while top scorers will gain entre into the cosmopolitan cities.

Now, the Ministry of Education - and a number of provinces and universities - are trying to change that, albeit modestly.

In a recent 10-year education reform and development program, ministry officials acknowledged the unfairness of "a single examination that defines a student's destiny."

The primary means of gaining entrance to college will remain the standardized national exam, but the ministry is encouraging universities to design their own "university-based assessment" to identify candidates with special talents. This effort is part of a broader government goal to develop a more independent higher-education system, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

A small number of universities are developing their own exams and interviews, offering conditional admissions to students. These assessments, however, have become a new source of unfairness. The success in this process is hardly possible for anyone without an urban education, which is far superior to that offered in rural areas.

It is impossible that the gaokao will give way to the universities' own tests any time soon. But if universities are allowed to use their own assessments, the gaokao will become only part of the determinant for institutions of higher learning to enroll students.

Hopefully, this will accelerate reform of the nation's gaokao, or, even broader, reform of the education system further.



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