Do Quotas in China’s College Admissions System Reinforce Existing Inequalities?

Earlier this month, millions of Chinese students took the exam for which they had been preparing their entire lives—the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, known colloquially as the gaokao. For some, the process was more arduous than for others. Zhang Tu, a promising high school student in Beijing, encountered a roadblock when he discovered he could not take the gaokao at his own high school because his residence registration, or hukou, was in the inland province of Anhui, where his family had lived before moving to Beijing.

Like Zhang, tens of thousands of high school seniors each year have to go back to the provinces of their official residence to take the gaokao, even if they have spent their entire lives in Beijing and call it home. Often, not only do these students have to familiarize themselves with new materials when they go back—as the test varies from province to province—but they also face even fiercer competition.

The Beijing Advantage

While it may seem counterintuitive, competition for spots at China’s top universities is less fierce in populous cities like Beijing and Shanghai than in China’s more rural provinces. This is because universities located in Beijing will reserve more spots for students with Beijing hukou, and thus the lowest qualifying score for a Beijing-based test-taker may be vastly lower than the score required from a student taking the examination in Henan or Jiangsu.

China’s prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, both based in Beijing, will collectively take about 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers who took the gaokao this June; fourteen students from every 10,000 who took the gaokao in nearby Tianjin, ten out of every 10,000 test-takers from Shanghai, and only about three per 10,000 candidates from Anhui, Zhang’s province of residence, and a mere two from every 10,000 taking the test in Guangdong. 

A joke circulating around Weibo illustrates the inequality:

In Beijing: “Dad, I got a 530 [on the gaokao], fifty-three points higher than the lowest qualifying score for top-tier universities!” “Great job, son! Let’s go to Shanghai for our vacation!”

In Shandong: “Dad, I got a 530, twenty points lower than the lowest qualifying score for second-tier universities!” “You’re not so bright… Don’t go [to college]. Get out of here and go become a migrant worker in Shanghai.”

In Shanghai: “Dad, I got a 330. Send me abroad.” “Okay, son. Go get an MBA, then come back and help me. I got another group of migrant workers from Shandong this year.”

Families from the provinces with money and connections often move to Beijing or Shanghai prior to the exam, hoping that their children may have a better chance at getting into the country’s leading universities. These “gaokao immigrants,” along with those like Zhang who wish to take the exam outside the province of their hukou, have caused natives of Beijing and Shanghai to campaign for the protection of their privileges, which some have taken to calling their “birthright.”

Weibo user @创先争优310土匪 wrote, “This Weibo post serves the sole purpose of petitioning against people of other provinces taking the gaokao in Shanghai. Now is the time to see whether we Shanghainese can unite! Share this Weibo to show Shanghai citizens’ stance to the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission!” The post was retweeted over 11,000 times.

Another Weibo user wrote, “[These provincials] break the one-child policy, have no regard for the rule of law, and can’t raise their children properly. Over time, this won’t just be a problem of limited resources; this will cause a series of societal problems.”

“Provincials” have responded to this backlash online. Wrote @开心笑话站, “Beijing parents complain about people with different hukou coming to Beijing to take the gaokao. But even the one whose picture hangs in Tiananmen [Mao Zedong] was a ‘provincial!’”

The Quota System

The stark difference in quotas set for students from different provinces has long been the subject of heated debate. Most Chinese universities are public, and the top schools are heavily funded by the central government as part of its campaign to build top-tier universities. Shanghai’s Fudan University, for example, received nearly 2 billion RMB [about 326 million USD] from China’s Ministry of Education in 2011, accounting for 44% of its annual budget. While these universities do receive financial support from local governments and should to a certain extent admit more local students, the seemingly arbitrary quotas for other provinces are set each year by the Ministry of Education, which has never explained its policy for setting them.

“[The quota] is usually a compromise provincial governments make among themselves,” stated Long Denggao, a Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tsinghua University. “What you see is centralized planning in what many believe is the country’s only fair competition.”

Universities publish their quotas for each province every June, and students file their applications after receiving their test scores and calculating their chances. Sometimes, a college takes so few students from a given province that it does not open half of its majors, significantly limiting the candidates’ options as it is almost impossible to switch majors to study what they like later on in college. Yet again, how a university decides whether to open Environmental Science or close Philosophy in a given province is based entirely on a system unknown to the test-takers.

Different Places, Different Chances

“It’s really hard to get into top universities if you take the test in Jiangsu, because we have some of the country’s best high schools, yet universities take so few students from our province,” said Shen Yanzi, a student from Nanjing Foreign Language School who took the three-day gaokao and hopes to attend Peking University this fall. Yet high school seniors of the coastal province of Jiangsu are still some of the most fortunate. Though out of every 10,000 Jiangsu students, only about two will head off to Peking or Tsinghua University in the fall, the blessing for Jiangsu’ers is that there are many top local colleges that favor them. 

One barometer for the quality of higher education is the number of “211 universities” in each province. About 100 universities were chosen by the central government in the 1990s as the primary focus of higher education and thus the beneficiary of the best resources. Jiangsu, where Shen comes from, boasts eleven such universities. When asked about the great options in her home province, Shen says with some hesitation, “It compensates [for the steep competition at colleges elsewhere], I guess.”

But for some, the pressure from the fierce competition at out-of-province universities only rises when they face a lack of decent education opportunities at home. For example, only about three out of every 10,000 Henan residents taking the gaokao will attend Peking and Tsinghua University this fall, making them 27 times less likely than students from Beijing to attend either of the two universities. And Henan’s 71,600 total test-takers this year have only one “211 University” in their home province that will favor its local students. Instead of promoting equality in education, the central government has vowed to invest less in Henan’s higher education and make it harder for Henan students to attend top universities elsewhere.

While policies that further this inequality remain in place, the drastically different fates of Chinese students with different hukou have prompted the government to respond to public furor. This year marks the first time provinces like Liaoning have opened up their gaokao to students who were registered elsewhere but who met other requirements like three years of high school attendance and a record of tax-paying in Liaoning.

However, the actual number of students that took the gaokao outside the province of their residence was far lower than expected. Of the country’s 9.12 million test-takers this year, only 4,500—or less than 0.5%—took advantage of the new policy. Asked about the less-than-expected number, Xiong Bingqi of China’s 21st Century Education Research Institute noted that the information about the policy change was not publicized early enough and that major cities of interest including Beijing and Shanghai still kept to the old, rigid rule of hukou-dependent registration.

What’s Next?

No matter how the system changes over the next decade, the fundamental problem of setting quotas for each province remains. Who gets to determine the quotas, and how? Liu Yu, a political scientist at Tsinghua University, wrote in her popular book, Details of Democracy, that the current rules the quota system follows are neither those of systematic justice nor restorative justice. She noted that setting quotas proportional to the number of test-takers would be systematic justice, and favoring students from poorer provinces in Central China would be restorative justice, yet the current system could be described only in terms of its absurdity.

Until the quota system is changed, the gaokao will never be a fair competition for students across the country. Some have proposed making the quotas proportional to the number of test-takers; others have suggested using per capita GDP as a metric. As long as the universities consistently follow an open, clear set of rules, gaokao can live up to its reputation as the country’s only fair competition.

Professor Long of Tsinghua voiced another concern at the end of his interview with Tea Leaf Nation. “The gaokao quota system is just a microcosm of the central government’s attempt to control academia. From teaching to research, from admissions to funding, the government has retained a strong presence in our academic life. There has been a lot of talk in Beijing regarding the ‘depoliticization of academia.’ That is the problem the country eventually has to tackle if it really wants a world-renowned higher education system.”