As reported recently in the New York Times, many schools in China designate the final year of high school as a cram year for the gaokao, or the college entrance examination. Mr. Yang, a student in Kunming spent 13 hours a day during his senior year studying for it. The phenomenon is common in today’s China. A student’s life leading up to the gaokao is full of suffering, including pressure from family, teachers, and him or herself. The combination of long study, lack of physical exercise, and weighty pressure leads to students living continuously in a really bad state of mind during this period. Teachers and parents are also under heavy pressure. Teachers attach importance to the ranking of and the number of their students admitted to top universities, and parents always hope their children earn a high score. The competition is excessive and moving toward the extreme. Competition, always a phenomenon in the field of Chinese education, has become severely distorted.
The increasing intensity of the competition on the college entrance examination goes along with mass higher education. Since 1999, China’s higher education system has experienced rapid expansion. The enrollment rate increases year by year. With more than 2500 institutions of higher education and more than 30 million tertiary-level students, China is the largest higher education system in the world in its scale.
Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that 9.15 million students took the gaokao in June, 2012 and about 75 percent would be admitted to colleges and universities in mainland China. Therefore, an interesting question is— Now that the enrollment capacity has increased, why has gaokao become so much more competitive than before?
Social competition in China has intensified greatly. Since the beginning of the open door policy in 1978, social competition has widened the gap between rich and poor in society, while also widening the income gap between industries and vocations. Accordingly, there is a trend toward a growing separation between social classes. Ina highly stratified society with a distinct social hierarchy, opportunities for socioeconomic mobility and status are very limited and the scope of the lower classes is large. For most people, one must compete with others for the limited opportunities in order to attain a better position. In China, education has become a mechanism for social reproduction, but the gaokao is still a means of social mobility for many middle class and disadvantaged families. Government leaders and prominent businesspeople tend to send their children to top or well-known universities abroad; families from the middle and lower economic levels expect their children to achieve high score to be admitted to ideal colleges and universities in China. Similar to Marginsion’s finding in Australia, “social competition and educational competition, with its ranking and selection, formed an unbroken circle”.
Along with the process of massification, China’s higher education has become stratified. At present, there is a hierarchy in Chinese higher education system with “985” universities at the top, followed by“211” universities, provincial and local four-year colleges and universities, then tertiary vocational colleges. Among more than 3000 colleges and universities, there are 39 top universities listed in the “985” project, and 115 known universities listed in the “211” project, which includes 39 top universities. Compared with students from other colleges and universities, graduates of “985” universities have better opportunities. They have more opportunities to learn from better teachers, to pursue post-graduate study at home or abroad, to find nicer jobs in a competitive labor market. On the other hand, graduates of the majority common colleges and universities face a depressing job-hunt, except those students with rich social capital. Therefore, parents, teachers and students themselves are no longer satisfied with admittance to any common college or university, and students are pressured to gain a place at the top university or at least a well-known university. Since gaokao is almost the only gateway to top universities in China, fierce competition is a natural result of the high expectations.
Michael Apple’s observation that competition is the dominant ethic of society in the United States, is also true in today’s China. Competition at all levels has intensified. The nation, every enterprise and other type of organization reflect the new competitive environment—competition rather than cooperation has become mainstream ideology. The concept of competition has certainly taken root in education, especially senior high school. Administrators of education bureaus, principals of schools, and teachers accentuate competition. They hope for the success of their school districts, schools, classes, and subjects to be recognized as a consequence of high student scores on the gaokao.