The US admissions scandal wouldn't happen in China

When the United States college bribery scandal appeared in China’s newspaper headlines, Chinese citizens were shaking their heads in disbelief. Money under the table, bribery of coaches and continued erosion of meritorious college admissions are not occurring in today’s China.

Their gaokao (high school leaving exam) remains the gatekeeper to entering Chinese universities. Indeed, the content on prior exams is what drives the intense rote memorisation that occupies Chinese students in their high school years.

Unlike in the United States, where grade records are kept confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the gaokao scores will be posted in public. Their public demands that they can see the results.

If the lazy rich kid gets a low score that falls below the cut line, that student will not attend college. And if the studious but economically poor student scores at the top, that will be a ticket to scholarships and entry into the best of China’s universities. And all of China knows which universities are ranked one, two and three.

In 2010, I was waiting in the Beijing airport en route to a biology education conference in Kunming when the CCTV monitor announced that a proposal by the Chinese Ministry of Education had been rejected.

The gaokao exam requires students to excel across the board in mathematics, English and Chinese. Educators had noticed that occasionally there was a high school student brilliant in physics but who did poorly in Chinese and English. Low scores in those segments would likely prohibit that potential ‘Einstein’ from entering college, let alone attending Tsinghua University or Harbin Engineering University.

The ministry had therefore proposed allowing the high school headmaster to write a letter for such young geniuses, bypassing the test required of all others. The public response was swift and unanimous: No way! There was just too much potential for a rich parent to fund school projects or buildings or otherwise buy a letter of superiority for their mediocre student.

No benefits for donors

Prevention of American style college bribery also applies to funding college buildings. In the 2012 spring semester, I taught college classes in China and my classroom was in ‘Building 10’. There are donors to universities in China. But buildings will only be numbered. There can be no benefits to donors.

The bribery of coaches really makes Chinese readers’ eyes roll. The influence of sports and coaches in American universities is simply not found in China. Their universities are focused on academics and historically have not had their identities tied to sports teams.

China’s obsession with college meritocracy stems from the pre-1949 excesses. During the early 1900s, warlords with several wives, many concubines and many dozens of children became rich by extorting ‘taxes’ into the future. The wealthy would send their students off to ‘schools’ where students would party down for four years and receive a degree.

In the West, we would call them ‘diploma mills’. In China, they were called wild chicken universities. In Chinese, the term ye ji (literally ‘wild chicken’) is a slang term for prostitute. Therefore, ‘wild chicken universities’ refers to those warlord-era pay-your-money get-your-degree universities that eroded the value of a diploma. Since 1949, China’s government has been adamant in not letting wild chicken universities rise again.

Of course, the American universities caught in this scandal are not low-value diploma mills, but are among our best institutions. Nevertheless, purchasing entry into elite universities for students that might not otherwise be accepted is the same problem, and it holds the same injustice for honest students with higher scores who are excluded as a result.

Schools locked down

When your future life depends on one test, test security is critical. Around the second weekend in June, China locks down their schools in preparation for the nationwide gaokao exam. Traffic is excluded for blocks around each school to remove distracting noise.

Classrooms are scoured and doors and windows sealed with tape the day before. SWAT teams arrive and special electronic-monitoring equipment scans for any signal that might transmit information to a hidden student earpiece.

Students must carry a small clear plastic bag of writing utensils and a special photo identification. They are electronically scanned as they enter, similar to your airport TSA (Transport Security Administration) experience.

Tests are delivered to the school by police escort. Security cameras scan the classrooms while the examination is underway and can be viewed by the ministry in Beijing, and in many cases by the parents waiting outside. Test security extends from before test printing to the weeks of grading (by professors locked in special rooms in the case of essays).

Some criminal groups tried to offer a look-alike college student to sit in for a rich high school student. That was rapidly discovered and criminalised.

Simply put, you have not witnessed real test security unless you have been in China.

Urban-rural divide

China continues to face a problem providing qualified teachers in poorer rural areas. Therefore, rural students have more difficulty receiving good instruction and scoring high on the gaokao. This unequal educational opportunity is a problem China has failed to successfully solve. Instead the rural population is moving to the cities.

But a shortage of qualified teachers is also a growing problem in the United States, with our rural and poor urban students often receiving a second-rate education.

What puzzles Chinese observers most is the current trend of American public universities to move toward ‘test optional’ admission: fewer US schools are requiring applicants to take the ACT or SAT tests for admission.

While elite American universities still only accept a small percentage of student applicants, many states have reduced public university support to the point that many public universities accept nearly any student applicants with a heartbeat and a credit card.

If US public universities continue along a path of reducing rigour in order to maintain tuition fee flow, the wild chicken university will be alive and well in America.

John Richard Schrock is a professor of biology emeritus at Emporia State University in Kansas, United States, and each year teaches classes in various Chinese universities.

Reader comment on this article:

Few have argued that Chinese higher education is free of corruption in general. It is possible that relying rigidly on the gaokao national entrance exam makes admissions hanky-panky difficult, but the gaokao has created other problems that have received much discussion in China – several top Chinese universities have added other more subjective measures to admissions decisions in addition to the gaokao.

There is one notable error in the Schrock article that should be noted. Schrock claims that buildings are not named after donors. This is definitely not true. At Xiamen University, one of China’s top institutions where I am a visiting professor, there are many buildings named in honour of generous donors who have assisted the university since its establishment in 1921.

There are no doubt many other Chinese universities with buildings named after donors. One might also note that the Schwarzman Scholars programme at Tsinghua University is named in honour of its benefactor, American tycoon Stephen Schwarzman.

Philip G Altbach, Boston College, United States