CHEN CHUNXIU was applying to join an adult-education programme when she discovered, to her surprise, that she already had a degree. The 36-year-old kindergarten teacher from Shandong province had left formal education in 2004 after taking the gaokao, China’s fearsome university-entrance exam. Though she had attained a respectable score, she had failed to secure a place. When, this year, she asked Shandong University of Technology to explain why its records listed her as an alumnus, the answer was a shock. The university concluded that another young woman with the same surname but much lower grades had connived with teachers and local officials to obtain the college-acceptance notice that should have been sent to Ms Chen. This woman had assumed Ms Chen’s identity and earned a degree, which she then used to bag a job as a civil servant.
Reporting of Ms Chen’s story has caused a furore ahead of this year’s gaokao, which will take place on July 7th and 8th (it was postponed by a month because of the pandemic). Several people from the same province have come forward with similar complaints. One newspaper reported that a review of student records in Shandong had found more than 240 cases of impersonation at 14 universities (officials say these all involved people who attended university some years ago, and that some of the students who were impersonated had knowingly sold their spots to others). In late June an editorial in China Daily, a state-run newspaper, warned that the frauds revealed in Shandong could be “only the tip of an iceberg” and that there may be many more cases elsewhere.
The 10m people who are sitting this year’s gaokao already had plenty to worry about. Few will get a second chance to win a place at one of China’s better universities, a prerequisite for many of its good jobs. Many of them spent as long as 12 weeks out of the classroom during the worst of the covid-19 outbreak in China. Though most have been back at their desks since late April, they have worried about schools being closed again because of localised outbreaks. Now organisers are trying to reassure test-takers that they will not be infected in the exam room. All invigilators will have to wear masks, as will pupils sitting the exam in parts of China that are still deemed medium- or high-risk. Each exam centre will have quarantine spaces for pupils who display symptoms of the coronavirus while the tests are underway.
Britain and many other countries cancelled their most important public exams this year, choosing instead to grade youngsters according to their achievements before the pandemic. Chinese officials concerned about children’s mental health have ordered schools not to run some of the less important end-of-year assessments. But even during the height of the outbreak there was little doubt that the gaokao would go ahead, as it has almost every year since the Communist Party seized power in 1949 (apart from 1966-76, during the Cultural Revolution). At most Chinese universities, gaokao scores are the only gauge of applicants’ ability. Despite the pressure the system puts on students, the gaokao enjoys strong public support because it is seen as meritocratic. In theory, even the poorest villager can transform their life by acing it.
But the exam is marred not only by dirty tricks such as the one that denied Ms Chen her place. The odds are also stacked against people in the countryside. Much less money is spent on rural schools than urban ones. Many of their pupils drop out long before they have a chance to take the gaokao. Even rural residents who do well in the exam are disadvantaged. China’s good universities are clustered in rich cities, and are allowed to offer a disproportionate number of places to pupils who live nearby.
Covid-19 may cause even greater unfairness. Remote learning in poor parts of China is likely to have been less successful than in the cities, in part because of limited access to computers. And because it is a pupil’s ranking relative to others—rather than their test score itself—that is used to decide university admissions, this year’s month-long postponement of the gaokao has been a mixed blessing. Some have benefited from the extra study-time. Others’ lives have been too disrupted by quarantine measures to put the extra weeks to good use.
The party recognises these inequities, and many others. It has long worried that the rote-learning required is not producing enough creative or entrepreneurial types. Though it talks endlessly about reform, it has not done much more than tinker. Parents do not like the anxiety the test causes their children. But they believe, with some justification, that more subjective forms of assessment would be prone to corruption. Even before the pandemic, unemployment was high among university graduates. The economic damage caused by covid-19 will make it all the more important to get a place at a good university in order to have a chance of getting a decent job. That will crank up pressure on pupils sitting the gaokao and make middle-class families even less inclined to consider changes to a system that they broadly believe works well, says Jiang Xueqin, an education consultant.
But it will increase pressure on the government to prevent the most blatant type of cheating. Last year it encouraged officials to do a better job of detecting people who use underhand ways to enable their children to sit the exam in places where quotas make the competition for good universities a bit less fierce. This year it tightened college-admission rules for foreign students. The aim was to prevent Chinese who had secured foreign passports for their children from using the easier routes to admission that had been available to foreigners wanting to study in China. In early July officials in Shandong province said they were taking action against more than 60 people implicated in three cases of identity theft, including the one reported by Ms Chen. The university she should have attended said it would try to help her enroll, 16 years after her opportunity to do so was stolen.
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