Gaokao reform and international higher education

China’s obsession with English is quite a unique phenomenon. According to the Ministry of Education, the total number of students studying overseas in 2012 was about four million.

China is not only the country with the largest numbers of students studying abroad, but one of the few non-English-speaking countries that make English a compulsory subject throughout secondary school and a requisite for higher education.

Any decrease in English ability and consequent global competencies could lead to a decrease in the number and quality of Chinese students studying abroad. If this were to happen, it could have a notable impact on international higher education, given the fact that China is already the world’s biggest exporter of overseas students.

It is something for policy-makers and educationists to consider in the light of recent announcements and discussion in China about reforming the English section in Beijing’s gaokao – the national college entrance examination.

The reform plans have caused heated debate about the role of English in modern China and the reform of China’s college selection system.

The gaokao

Held annually, the gaokao is almost the only way for Chinese students to enter higher education. It takes the form of ‘3+X’ in most provinces.

The ‘3’ stands for compulsory subjects like Chinese, Mathematics and English, which each account for 150 points, and the ‘X’ refers to either arts and humanities disciplines – including politics, history and geography – or science disciplines including physics, chemistry and biology, which each account for 300 points.

In 2012, about 9.15 million students participated in the gaokao in China. The gaokao system has long been at the centre of controversy regarding China’s education reform. Major criticisms include its rigid format, its advocacy of rote learning and the fact that the majority of universities rely solely on gaokao scores to recruit new students.

The foremost merit of the gaokao system, publically recognised by the government and Chinese citizens, is that it provides relatively equal opportunities for Chinese students to enter higher education. Now China aims to reform the gaokao to embrace a more diverse and competence-based approach.

Regional differences

China used to have a uniform set of national gaokao examination papers. Since 1985, some provinces have begun to have their own sets of regional gaokao papers in order to account for differences in regional provisions and needs.

In October 2013, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education proposed to restructure its regional gaokao with three changes beginning in 2016.

First, it plans to reduce the total score for the English examination from 150 to 100 points, while increasing the Chinese examination from 150 to 180 points and the ‘X’ section from 300 to 320 points. Second, it proposes to strengthen the listening comprehension section of the English examination (30 points).

Third, it suggests allowing students to take the English examination several times rather than giving them a once-in-a-lifetime chance. At the same time, it proposes to reduce the total score for the zhongkao’s – China’s senior high school entrance examination’s – English examination from 120 to 100 points, in which the listening comprehension section accounts for 50 points.

Beijing is not the first region in China to reform the gaokao’s English section and will certainly not be the last. It is important, however, to review the rationale behind the proposed reform and the possible consequences it may bring.


Private English training schools, which have become a lucrative industry, have appeared in almost every corner of China to prepare students for the gaokao or studying abroad. However, the listening and speaking abilities of Chinese students have not increased in line with the amount of time and energy spent on them.

This seemingly paradoxical phenomenon has led to an increasing call for the de-emphasis of English. They are three main reasons for this. First, with regard to the role of Chinese as a national language: over-emphasising English, especially when considering the importance of English for Chinese students’ studying abroad, inevitably leads to the neglect of Chinese language study.

People are growing concerned by the fact that students in the 21st century are trying too hard to package themselves as world citizens while losing their native language proficiency. The downgrading of the English section in the gaokao aims to reinvigorate the use of Chinese as a mother tongue.

Moreover, it is hoped that increasing the English listening comprehension section of the gaokao and zhongkao will improve the way students learn and use English. Chinese students suffer from ‘dumb English’, referring to their poor listening and speaking abilities.

This problem does not lie in the language itself or students’ hard work, but in the way English is taught and valued in schools. The proliferation of English teaching and training in China tends to see the language taught as a ‘subject’ like mathematics or physics, rather than as a language.

English should serve as a door for the opening up of China and its people instead of a mere tool to succeed in the gaokao or other selective exams. Another reason given for any changes in the English section is to initiate the reform of China’s college selection system. The all-important gaokao used to be the sole determinant of college admissions in China.

Students compete fiercely for higher scores to enter better universities. This is gradually changing through allowing universities to have their own autonomous enrolment policies.

Downgrading the English section in the gaokao and allowing it to be taken multiple times will play an important role in reforming the college admissions selection system from one based on test scores to one incorporating more diverse indicators.

Possible impact

Beyond the possible positive consequences that reforming the English section could bring about, the most possible scenario is that the gaokao will remain the most important indicator for college admissions.

If this happens, de-emphasising the English part of gaokao may reduce schools’ and students’ efforts in English learning. The same applies to the zhongkao.

However, China’s integration in this increasingly globalised world and the growing trend for English as a lingua franca indicate the continued significance of English for the survival and success of China’s next generation.

Moreover, changes to the English section may increase educational inequalities in China. If English is de-emphasised in the school curriculum, underprivileged students may lose their only chance to systematically learn it.

* Shuangmiao Han is a masters student at Tsinghua University in China.