Relaxation of university entrance exam rules on the cards

China’s Ministry of Education has said it is willing to allow changes in residency rules for the country’s ferociously competitive university entrance examination known as the gaokao. But it has not outlined a timetable for change.

According to present rules, the entrance exam that this year took place on 7-8 June can only be taken by students in the city of their household registration (hukou).

Residency status is notoriously difficult to change in China, and even after parents have worked for many years in a city, migrant students are forced to return to their hukou to sit the exam, often without their family for support and at considerable cost.

With increased migration to major cities in recent years coupled with greater aspirations to attend university, the residency rules have come to be seen as a form of discrimination against families who move from rural areas to the cities.

Meanwhile, with each province setting its own gaokao, and with high schools setting their syllabus accordingly, having to sit the high stakes examination in another province is problematic for students.

Fujian announcement

Changes are long overdue.

“Last year proposals to change the hukou were made by the [central government] but the issue is still hanging in the air,” said Yimin Wang, a doctoral student at Indiana State University with a research interest in the gaokao.

“Now it has become really necessary to decrease the limitations imposed by the hukou, but it is a difficult policy to implement on the ground,” she told University World News.

The coastal province of Fujian announced this month that it would allow students registered in other provinces to sit its gaokao.

Of the 678,000 children in Fujian schools who come from migrant families, 419,000 are from other provinces. Special classes with different textbooks for students from other regions have been introduced into some high schools in Fujian to ease the return to place of residence of students taking the exam.

Liu Jianjin, deputy secretary of the Fujian Education Commission, told official media late last month that “the [new] policy will help conflicts between rural and urban areas and is good for social justice. It can also promote the quality of education in Fujian, and attract more migrant workers to Fujian.”

However, the main changes allowing migrant children to sit the gaokao in Fujian will not take place until 2014, even though it was announced just in advance of this year’s gaokao, which kicked off on 7 June across the country.

The timing of the Fujian announcement was seen by some as an attempt to stave off angry criticism by migrant parents who have been campaigning for a change in the residency rules.

Unjust system for migrants

Critics say it also entrenches an unjust system of higher education admission. Provinces set a quota for locally registered students for each university and major subject in the province, then set the numbers of students they will take from other parts of China.

This means, for example, that students who live in cities with the most prestigious universities – in Beijing or Shanghai – have an inbuilt advantage in the competition to get into a top university compared to non-residents with higher gaokao scores.

In 2011, Peking University enrolled a third of its students from Beijing and fewer than one student in every 10,000 students from Henan, Shandong and Hubei provinces, according to official figures.

The official China Daily reported that in the past five years, 97% of the country’s poorest counties sent no students to prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Students with Shanghai hukou are 53 times more likely than the national average to get a place at the city’s prestigious Fudan University.

Conversely, there are reports of ‘gaokao shopping’, with families seeking registration in areas where competition for university entrance is less fierce.

“The problem has become visible as people now see migrant workers everywhere. It started because different provinces had different cut-off rates and people want to take advantage of [areas with] a lower cut-off rate for university entrance,” Wang said.

Beijing problem

China Daily reported this month that the Ministry of Education was considering the feasibility of allowing migrant students to sit the gaokao in Beijing, where the issue is particularly controversial as both residence and university places are highly sought after.

This followed an incident in February in which hundreds of migrant workers gathered outside China’s Ministry of Education building demanding equal education rights for their children. Photographs of irate parents, surrounded by police vehicles and with police guarding the building, were posted on the microblog site Sina Weibo.

Du Yubo, deputy chief of the Ministry of Education, was quoted in official media in March as saying the best interests of migrant students as well as local ones should be taken into consideration to prevent “gaokao overcrowding” in cities such as Beijing.

Du noted that changes in the gaokao rules would affect Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province the most.

Xiong Bingqi, an education expert with Shanghai Jiaotong University, told the Global Times that in changing the system the ministry “must take various interest groups into account, protecting migrant students' rights, while at the same time making sure not to affect the college admission rate for local residents”.

Official fear that changes in gaokao policy to help migrant families could spark discontent among locals, particularly in sought-after Beijing and Shanghai, concerned about the additional pressure on university places.

Meanwhile, some regions where there is less pressure for university places have already been loosening the rules.

At the end of February, Shandong province announced that students without a local registration could take the exam as long as they had completed all their studies in a local high school.

Along with Hunan province and Chongqing municipality, Shandong was designated by the ministry as a pilot region for loosening gaokao registration requirements.

Weibo bloggers criticised the decision, saying these were mainly areas of labour emigration, making the pilot irrelevant to regions where the real problems lay such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Shanghai had 170,000 students enrolled in high school in 2010, but there were 570,000 migrant children aged 15 to 19 living in the city without local registration, according to the Shanghai municipal authorities.