Sunday, June 19, 2016

China higher education story of the day

Times has a very interesting article on how China is trying to redistribute the benefits of higher education across the country. The annual nation-wide Gaokao examinations which determine admissions to college seats is now widely seen as reinforcing urban-rural, coastal-hinterland, and rich-poor disparities. A recent decision, therefore, reserves a certain number of seats in all the major colleges to students from less developed regions. The decision has resulted in widespread protests across the coastal areas from parents of local children. 
Top schools are concentrated in big prosperous cities, mostly on the coast, and weaker, underfunded schools dominate the nation’s interior. Placement is determined almost exclusively by a single national exam, the gaokao, which was administered across China starting on Tuesday. The test is considered so important to one’s fate that many parents begin preparing their children for it before kindergarten... The exam gives the admissions system a meritocratic sheen, but the government also reserves most spaces in universities for students in the same city or province, in effect making it harder for applicants from the hinterlands to get into the nation’s best schools.
The authorities have sought to address the problem in recent years by admitting more students from underrepresented regions to the top colleges. Some provinces also award extra points on the test to students representing ethnic minorities. 
This spring, the Ministry of Education announced that it would set aside a record 140,000 spaces — about 6.5 percent of spots in the top schools — for students from less developed provinces. But the ministry said it would force the schools to admit fewer local students to make room... 

Over the past two decades, the government has opened hundreds of new institutions of higher education, and university enrollment surged to 26.2 million in 2015 from 3.4 million in 1998, though much of the growth has been in three-year polytechnic programs. At the same time, job prospects for college graduates in China have dimmed in recent years. That has left parents worried about wasting their life savings on substandard schools and even more desperate to get their children into the better ones.
Dissatisfaction with the gaokao is also rising. The test, modeled after China’s old imperial civil service exam, was intended to enhance social mobility and open up the universities to anyone who scored high enough. But critics say the system now has the opposite effect, reinforcing the divide between urban and rural students. The top universities in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing are the most likely to lead to jobs and the hardest to get into. Students from less developed regions are vastly underrepresented at these colleges. That is because they attended schools with less money for good teachers or modern technology and because the admissions preference for local applicants means they often need higher scores on the gaokao than urban students.
This is a dynamic that echoes with India's own reservation and other affirmative action programs, both in terms of the specific actions as well as the popular emotions it generates. At a more fundamental level, this is one more story of how extreme forms of competitive pressures (a merit based selection exam), which initially have a benign nature, accumulates anti-competitive strains (the better off have access to the resources necessary to compete on equal terms), and ends up being captured by the beneficiaries. 

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