University students among China's new middle and upper classes who fail to make the cut-off score in the national entrance examination, the gao kao, still have options to study in China and abroad. With limited capacity to meet the huge demand for places, and balancing the dilemma of fairness versus diluting the rigor of college education, universities are using a tier system to admit lower-performing students with money and even sponsor programmes for improving the students' English skills before sending them overseas.
After 1949, China worked to avoid the return of the ye ji da xue (literally "wild chicken universities") which more clearly translates as "prostitute university". The term comes from the warlord era when the ruling class and rich landlords paid to send their children to college to "party down" for four years and get a cheap degree.
Up until the mid-1990s, education through the college level in China was completely free although only the top A+ students were accepted. The desperate shortage of universities made entrance examinations a critical gatekeeper of student quality.
By 1998, China's senior high schools and colleges had switched to a full tuition-fee system. This influx of money greatly improved the pay of teachers and the quality of classroom equipment and programmes, and resulted in more high schools while tripling the capacity of its top 100 campuses.
Although Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea have enough capacity to meet their resident student populations, China still lacks enough universities for its most capable high school graduates. From the highest ranked Beijing University to the lowest technical school, Chinese students know the rankings and strive for the highest school that will accept them.
But the cut-off scores on the gao kao are determined by academic ability and still leave many good B students unable to enrol. Today, for most Chinese universities, there are three cut-off scores: one for band I (yi ben), one for band II (er ben), and one for band III (san ben) majors.
Many universities, even the top 20, admit all three levels of students since the lowest band pays dramatically higher tuition fees. The gap in the cut-off score between band 1 and band 3 is huge (550 versus 380). Most high school students in urban areas such as Shanghai can make the lower cut-off score, even though they are not A students.
But not all universities admit the lowest band (especially the top-ranked and engineering universities) and, in many cases, students from the lowest band are housed in a distinct college on campus.
China continues its university expansion. New 'university cities' - clusters of five brand new campuses serving a total of 100,000 students - have been built outside Xi'an and Guangzhou. Chongqing is constructing a university city complex that will house 14 campuses and accommodate 300,000 students, teachers and support staff. The model shown here is of the new Chongqing Normal University which has now been completed.But with China's population growing in affluence, student demand continues to be greater than the supply of places. And although China can put up university buildings and fill them with students, a shortage of academic talent is posing a threat to academic rigor. Large classes mean few quizzes and tests, and students who drift through the semester and study only before the final tests.
Some Chinese universities have arranged special exchange programmes, bringing low-band students on to campus primarily to improve their English and then sending them abroad.
Because a student with a college education usually has a substantially higher standard of living, enforcing the test cut-off was previously necessary to ensure fairness in the eyes of the public.
While yielding to market-driven forces and accepting B students who do not make the highest cut-off, placing students in separate colleges or shunting them to Western schools slows the drift to "wild chicken universities".
A similar trend is obvious in American state universities where the proportion of high school graduates attending college has risen from 40% in the mid-1980s to nearly 75% in some states. While the actual success rate in graduating from US universities remains low, many observers see a similar dilution of academic standards and an increase in remedial coursework occurring in state institutions under pressure to retain more students as a result of market-driven funding, similar to that in China.
Western universities are still luring Chinese A+ students to their advanced programmes but an increase in Chinese B students may not be a bad trend. Their work and study ethic, not considered exceptional in China, still stands out among average students in Western universities.
* John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers in the US and lectures each summer at normal universities in China.
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