China, students towards the stress of Gaokao

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Just over a week has passed since schools reopened in Wuhan and throughout Hubei Province. Here, the first case of coronavirus was found, but life is slowly returning to normal. Following the strict ministerial protocols, the return to the desks was arranged only for some students, including those who are preparing for the much-feared gaokao (高考). This exam is usuallyscheduled for June. Due to the covid-19, a possible second wave of contagions and not least the need to fill the educational gaps, this year the gaokao was moved up by a month. The new dates are July 7th and 8th. Despite the high number of infections, Beijing and the province of Hubei have also decided to have the exam on the same date of the rest of the country. In the past the dates of this exam have been changed only three times: canceled during the cultural revolution from 1966 to 1977 because it was considered useless; in 2003 it was anticipated permanently from July to June; and finally was postponed for a month in 2008 only in the Sichuan region due to the earthquake.

But, why is this exam so important, what is the deal with it?

Gaokao (高考) literally means “high-grade exam” and allows admission to university.It was first established in 1952 but has a very long history behind it. In imperial China there was the keju ( imperial exam) through which officials of the bureaucratic apparatus were recruited. Introduced in the Han era (206 B.C. to 220 BC), it was institutionalized in the Sui era (581-618). The goal was to make the recruitment meritocratic: all men, regardless of their social status, could participate, with the only exception of merchant under some dynasties. The keju consisted of 3 levels: graduate, (shēngyuán生員), whose exam was held every year at the local level; provincial graduate (jǔrén舉人), whose exam was held every three years; metropolitan graduate (Jìnshì進士) level for which there was an exam every three years. The subjects, on which they were evaluated,were the Confucian classics, in addition to some specific subjects for the different levels. The uniformity of content ensured equal preparation for officials across the country. Moreover, given that only about 5% of those who participated actually passed the exam, the shared preparation allowed for a crowd of professors, managers, artists all to be trained on Confucian orthodoxy. Keju was abolished in 1905 as part of the modernization program started by the Chinese empire. The attempt was pointless: in 1911 the empire collapsed and then China expirenced a vacuum of power due to the Japanese invasion, the two world wars and the civil war. Only three years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the exam was renewed with new and more modern criteria.

Nowadays the gaokao consists of a 9-hour exam divided in 2 days. Students need to prepare on the following subjects:Chinese, English, mathematics and another subject chosen among the scientific ones (physics, chemistry and biology) and the humanities (politics, history and geography).

Stress is very high: the future of many young people is at stake. But what makes this test so competitive is how it works. Each province has a placement office responsible for assigning students a place in the university. Students are evaluated only by theirgaokao score, thus forming a national ranking. According to statistics from last year, over 10 million Chinese students took this exam. Together with the exam, students are asked to fill in a short format indicating the universities where they would like to study. The application must be delivered at different times according to the provinces, almost all of which require the format before the exam results. After that, the ball is in the hands of the universities. First-class universities choose first; then it is the turn of ordinary colleges and finally of vocational training institutes. It is a sort of tournament with elimination rounds: in the first round everyone competes for first-class universities, then rejected students compete for ordinary colleges, provided there are still places left.

Once the mechanism is understood, it is easy to grasp the iniquity of the system.

First of all, universities can reserve a share of places for students living in their region. This means that it may happen that a student with a higher score is rejected by a more prestigious university for the benefit of a student who has obtained a lower gaokao score but who lives in the same region as the university. If we think that the best universities are located in the west it is obvious to see the prejudice towards students from other provinces, or from more rural areas. Frustration is very highand this is why in recent years there has been an attempt to smooth out these iniquities.