‘Equitable’ university admissions quotas backfire

Changes to university admissions to allow in more students from poorer areas to universities in around a dozen richer provinces have backfired as thousands of parents demonstrated in the streets in several cities fearing the out-of-province quotas will be at the expense of local students.

Official newspapers admitted that demonstrations had broken out in at least six cities in Jiangsu and Hubei provinces, including the respective provincial capitals of Nanjing and Wuhan after video footage of the protests in Nanjing leaked online on 13 May.

While most protests appeared to be peaceful, some parents handing in petitions at offices of the local education bureau clashed with police. Other protests took place in the cities of Xuzhou, Yancheng, Taizhou, Changshu and Lianyungang, according to reports.

China’s Ministry of Education and the National Development and Reform Commission announced the rejigged quota plan without warning in early May, making more places available to students from poorer provinces such as Tibet and Qinghai.

Under the plan, universities in 11 of the richer provinces are to admit a total of 210,000 students from poorer provinces. Universities in Hubei and Jiangsu – the provinces particularly affected by parent protests – are to allocate nearly 80,000 places to students from outside the province.

Research in China has shown that students in more developed areas of China have a significant advantage in the highly competitive national university entrance examination known as the gaokao. Students are strictly ranked according to their National Higher Education Entrance Examination or gaokao marks, and only the highest ranked get into the best universities.

The out-of-province quota system allows students from certain provinces to add marks to their total gaokao score.

“Every student wherever they are in China has to sit the same university entrance exam, but they do not start at the same point as those in the more developed areas. Quotas would enable them to gain access to the more prestigious universities,” said Qiang Zha, an associate professor of education at York University in Canada, speaking from Tianjin in China.

"For historical reasons, there are more national and local universities in the economically prosperous eastern provinces, which in turn resulted in the access disparities between the eastern and western/hinterland regions, as well as higher cut off marks in the latter," said Qiang.

"Now the eastern provinces are required to provide earmarked quotas for western entrants, who are given bonus marks as well in order to get admitted to more selective national universities. Such a policy or policy change aims to narrow the access disparities, indicating a shift from procedural equity to compensatory equity," Qiang explained.

Hubei and Jiangsu

Under the recently announced plan, Hubei’s provincial universities will recruit some 2,300 more students overall this year – 153,800 compared to 151, 500 last year, but it must take 40,000 from the 10 poorer provinces. Some 30,800 places in Jiangsu province will go to students from poorer provinces.

“If you are a Hubei student hoping to get into a provincial level university in the provincial capital of Wuhan or elsewhere in the province, it appears that the number of places available to Hubei residents just dropped by 25%, and the gaokao score needed to gain entry has risen dramatically,” said Mike Gow, visiting researcher at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, who has looked closely at the figures.

“Usually, these numbers are negotiated between Hubei and other provinces, but this year a planned figure of 40,000 has been decreed,” Gow told University World News.

Similarly, Jiangsu province has announced an 18% reduction in places for local students to give students from poorer provinces a chance.

Official ‘reassurance’

Education officials attempted to reassure parents, saying that with a drop in the number of students sitting the gaokao this year, the impact may not be so severe.

According to the ministry, the admission rate for local students in Jiangsu province rose from 85.8% to 88.8% between 2013 and 2015, and from 80.4% to 87% in Hubei during the same period.

However, even the official China Daily newspaper noted that “not all parents bought the explanation”.

The newspaper quoted a parent in Nanjing, Jiangsu province as saying: “The competition to gain admission to college, especially to some of the most prestigious universities was fierce enough even before the quota was changed,” adding “I can’t imagine what will happen if fewer places are offered to the children of Jiangsu.”

Ministry spokeswoman Xu Mei was quoted in some newspapers as saying the ministry was working out a solution in the face of the urgent [protest] situation.”

Bad timing

Coming just weeks before the gaokao in early June, the quota announcement was intended to reduce the pressure on students, according to officials. However, Qiang, said: “That they chose this time to suggest such a big policy change so close to the gaokao shows the callousness of the government. Without transparency or public consultation, you would expect an emotional response from parents. If there had been a more transparent process, the public might have been able to accept it.”

The way the quotas are worked out has never been explained since out-of-province quotas were first introduced in a different form in the 1970s. The calculation has always been “completely mysterious”, Qiang said.

The fiasco was due to provincial authorities responding to central edicts rather than consulting the population, he added.

“The provincial education authorities haven’t told anyone what [the new system] means,” said Gow, who described the announcement as a “huge public relations disaster”.

“The thing making the parents so angry is they want to know how many places will be available in the top universities,” said Gow. However, they are not getting those answers.

Gow noted that as the quotas were not national university quotas but emanated from the provincial jurisdiction, “the most prestigious, centrally administered universities are unaffected”.

Others have noted that major cities like Beijing and Tianjin have not announced new admissions quotas to poorer regions.

Other reforms have been brought in recently, in particular a reduction in English in the gaokao, which typically disadvantaged students from poorer provinces with lower standards and unable to attract the best teachers of English.