Many ‘no-shows’ for postgraduate exam amid COVID confusion

Despite record numbers registering for China’s 2023 national postgraduate entrance exam, many people did not turn up for the first part of the exam held in late December 2022. The high level of no-shows appears to be, in part, due to confusion over COID-19 restrictions and related quarantine measures when travelling to exam venues.

However, many candidates also said they feared the exam would be cancelled at short notice because COVID cases soared with the sudden end of China’s strict ‘Zero-COVID’ policies in early December.

On 7 December 2022 the government suddenly, and without preparation, lifted its ‘Zero COVID’ policy, unleashing a huge COVID spike, initially in cities, though the extent of the infection wave has not been made public.

On 25 December 2022 China’s National Health Commission said it would no longer issue a daily report on COVID infections and deaths. In its final daily report, the commission said there were just over 4,100 locally transmitted cases recorded the prior day, and no deaths.

China’s education ministry announced the postponement of many national-level exams in late November and early December 2022, including the national civil servant exam that had been scheduled for 3 to 4 December 2022 and for which more than 2.5 million candidates had registered. That exam is now scheduled for January 2023.

However, determined to press ahead with the national postgraduate exam, the ministry in December 2022 issued specific guidelines for managing candidates who tested positive at exam venues so that they could take the exam.

The postgraduate exam was listed as a trending topic for several major social media sites in December 2022, with discussion of students’ fears of contracting COVID at exam sites, fears of transport disruption when trying to reach exam venues, and jacked-up hotel prices near exam centres. Many posts were quickly censored.

In particular, social media discussions of whether or not the postgraduate exam should be postponed were strictly censored within hours of posting.

Officially, some 4.57 million people registered for the postgraduate exam – 170,000 more than the previous year. However, unofficial figures from some regions and netizens posting about the many seats not occupied at individual exam centres when it was held from 24 to 26 December 2022, indicate a high ‘no show’ rate.

According to some estimates circulating on Chinese social media, up to a third of those registered for the postgraduate exam failed to appear. The ministry has to date not commented on the ‘abandonment’ rate for the December exam.

Estimates circulating on social media in the aftermath of the December 2022 exams put the no-show numbers at between one and 1.6 million, based on collated, internally available provincial estimates, and other figures not in the public domain. Such estimates cannot be independently verified.

Guangdong, one of the provinces to announce its ‘no show’ figures in the wake of the exam, estimated the test abandonment rate at 19% within the province in December, according to local authority figures not made public.

Some figures for individual universities were made available, with some 27,966 people registering for the postgraduate entrance exam for Shenzhen University in Guangdong. With only 21,295 actually sitting the exam, the rate of abandonment was around 23.8%.

In Shaanxi province, 168,000 people registered for the postgraduate exam while 143,200 actually sat it – an abandonment rate of just over 14%, according to provincial figures.

The Tibet region has released an official figure of 35% no-shows for the exam. According to official figures from Tibet, 5,573 candidates registered for the exam, but only 3,649 actually took the test in the province’s 12 examination centres.

Elsewhere in different provinces, candidates reported the absentee rate being much higher than in previous years. Some candidates reported that 50% of seats in exam halls were vacant.

According to unofficial estimates, the test abandonment rate in individual provinces in previous years during the pandemic was just over 10%.

According to official government estimates, nearly one in five graduates opt to continue onto postgraduate studies amid high unemployment rates for graduates. However, with competition rising year on year for postgraduate places, many students retake the postgraduate exam, hoping to improve their scores.

The ministry has approved additional postgraduate places in order to reduce the number of graduate jobseekers, with unemployment among graduates soaring to over 19% this year.

According to the Ministry of Education, around 1.1 million of 4.5 million applicants were accepted into postgraduate studies in 2022, an enrolment rate of 24%. Thus, more than three million test-takers failed to get places as competition stiffened in the past few years.

However, the first stage of this year’s exam has been beset by uncertainties, candidates say.

In the wake of protests against China’s strict ‘Zero-COVID’ policies in late November, many students were sent home in advance of the semester end, leaving behind only those preparing for the postgraduate exam. However, students on many campuses reported that postgraduate exam candidates were also forced to leave, disrupting their exam preparation.

“As our university is within the province, regardless of the postgraduate entrance examination and the public examination schedule, we were forced to go home,” said one student on social media in a post in early December 2022 that was taken down within hours.

Another student said: “Some people are in isolation because of the epidemic, or they can’t go back to their place of residence to take the exam. Their year of hard work might go down the drain.”

Another student noted in late December 2022 that “almost all the miscellaneous exams before and after the postgraduate entrance examination were postponed on the grounds of protecting the health of candidates”. Yet the postgraduate exam was held, despite uncertainty in many provinces where policies have not been uniform and restrictions on travel and local lockdowns have varied.

Other candidates noted on social media that with some provinces still maintaining lockdown policies after the 7 December 2022 official lifting of restrictions announced by Beijing, many hotels were still requisitioned by the authorities as quarantine centres and could not be booked by exam candidates.

In the weeks before the exam, candidates feared they would not be able to reach test centres or find accommodation, and wanted the exam postponed.

One candidate wrote on social media in mid-December 2022: “The closest hotel [to the exam venue] was requisitioned, the catering was closed, the place where the test centre was located had no food or accommodation, and I didn’t know how to get there.”

In advance of the exam, the education ministry demanded that “utmost efforts” in epidemic control should be made by local exam authorities and universities to ensure the safety of postgraduate exam takers. It asked local authorities to set up separate test centres for those who test positive for COVID-19.

Candidates in a different provincial region from where the test centre was located, and who might have difficulties returning, were allowed to apply to take the exam in the region where they were currently residing, according to the ministry.

The second part of the postgraduate exam is due to be held in February 2023.