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China’s Gaokao is losing fans and supporters

China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination (also called Gaokao) has recorded a continuous drop in the number of examination-takers for four consecutive years according to a survey conducted by China Education Online. In 2012, ‘only’ 9.15 million students registered for the examination, a drop of 1.35 million from 2008. The declining birth rate as result of the one-child policy is a potential explanation for the decrease, while the continuous increase of young Chinese studying overseas at the Bachelor’s level is another (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, January 2012).

The declining number of examination-takers implies less competition and easier access to higher education institutions (HEIs) within China. Such a development is, however, not well received by all. There is a general fear of the depreciating quality (or value) of university degrees as a result of easier access into universities, especially in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, and Zhejiang. Nevertheless, lessened competition in the big cities has not benefitted students from poorer regions in Western China. Official residence of the students decides where they must take the examination and study. Therefore students from poorer regions in China have found themselves competing on unequal basis with their city counterparts or paying extra fees for enrolling in HEIs in the cities. Moreover, private HEIs, which mushroomed in the past few decades to offer Bachelor’s or sub-Bachelor’s degree programmes, have recently found themselves short of students - their major funding source – either as a result of decreased competition for entering  public universities, or because of the increasing number of students who opt out of the Gaokao system. 

The Gaokao system, which was originally designed as a fair nation-wide mechanism to select the best for China’s HEIs, seems to have gradually lost touch with Chinese students who have become more mobile within China and beyond. Despite the fear that the abolition of a centralised examination will increase nepotism and corruption in student admission, which are not unusual even in the current system, there is looming pressure for China to introduce a more flexible national higher education admission mechanism to retain its talented and/or well-to-do students.    
China Education Online (Gaokao Survey 2012 in Chinese)