How Meritocratic is Chinese Higher Education?

A friend of mine taught at Harvard for a few years. Her husband needed a job, so he taught a writing class. He said his students were so bad it appeared to be an experiment: How stupid can you be and succeed at Harvard? They had not been admitted based on SAT scores or grades, that was clear. In a recent article called “The Myth of American Meritocracy”, Ron Unz described considerable evidence of exactly what my friend’s husband noticed: Harvard admission not based on the usual “meritocratic” measures, such as SAT scores and grades. For example, he found evidence of an Asian quota. If Asians weren’t penalized for being Asian, far more would be admitted.

In a follow-up article, Unz wrote:

Near the beginning of my article [about meritocracy] I had noted that although complaints about official corruption of every sort are a leading topic on the Chinese Internet and also in Western media coverage, I had never once heard such a claim about admissions to elite Chinese universities.  This led me to conclude that the process was entirely meritocratic, and a couple of individuals with good knowledge of China confirmed this.  However, during one of my recent Yale Law events, a student from China stated that he and his friends were firmly convinced that any of China’s 350 Central Committee members could easily obtain an admissions slot for his friends or relatives, so my claim was incorrect.  This conflicting evidence may be reconciled if the number of such corrupt admissions each year is so tiny—perhaps a few hundred out of over eight million—that it is completely invisible to the general public.  I should note that the New York Times just ran another major story on colleges in China, emphasizing every possible unfair aspect of the system, but nonetheless indicating that admissions were entirely meritocratic and objective.

Here is one reason that there is zero discussion of corruption in admission to elite Chinese universities (such as Tsinghua, where I teach): Rich Chinese universally want their children to go to college outside China, especially America. The more money you have, the easier this is. I’d guess all children of Central Committee members attend college outside China. None of them attend Tsinghua, as far as I know. At least among my students, this is utterly obvious — that education outside China is superior and anyone who can go outside China will. The brake on this is purely cost. One of my students said she didn’t want to burden her parents with the cost.

The test that Chinese high school students take to get into college is the gaokao. One of my students got the highest gaokao score in Beijing. An astonishing achievement. He didn’t get in to any American university. The Chinese public was shocked. Many newspaper articles were written about it. The rest of my students knew about it. His family is not well-off. This is why he failed where thousands of Chinese students from rich families — who didn’t bother to take the gaokao, but surely would have had a lower score — succeeded. Although he went to Tsinghua as a freshman, he too wanted to escape Chinese higher education. First he transferred to the University of Hong Kong. Then he transferred to MIT.

Why is Chinese higher education so bad that everyone who can avoids it? One of my students (a psychology major) said that as the economy quickly improved, the government quickly expanded the college education system. There weren’t enough good teachers to fill the slots. That’s one reason. Another reason is a certain ethos. I asked a friend of mine, a Tsinghua student not majoring in psychology, “In what fraction of your classes do the professors lecture by reading from the textbook?” 80%, she said. That’s at Tsinghua. Below Tsinghua it’s worse. Of course students go to college outside China for reasons that have nothing to do with quality. The most obvious is prestige: It is prestigious to go elsewhere.

Lack of higher education meritocracy in China has a more subtle aspect. It is much easier to get into elite universities, such as Tsinghua, if you live in Beijing or Shanghai than if you live elsewhere, especially poor provinces. Is this unfair? It isn’t easy to say because the gaokao is different in different places. I don’t know the official reason for this (different textbooks?), but the difference in tests makes it easier to have lower admissions cutoff scores for students from Beijing and Shanghai. A Beijing student at Tsinghua will usually have a lower gaokao score than a student at Tsinghua from a poor province. Of course it is much more expensive to live in Beijing and Shanghai than elsewhere. Moreover, a big chunk of the gaokao is about English proficiency. A student’s English proficiency depends heavily on amount and quality of English education, which depends heavily on family income. The richer you are, the better your children’s English.

All this makes political sense. Richer people — whose children have better English — have more political power than the less rich. Those who live in Beijing and Shanghai have more political power than people in poor provinces. Allowing their children get into Tsinghua with lower gaokao scores (Beijing and Shanghai residents) or writing the gaokao so that their children have an advantage (English proficiency) is one way to keep them happy.



6 Replies to “How Meritocratic is Chinese Higher Education?”

  1. Do you know if professors lecture by reading from the textbook in the engineering and math departments too?

    Seth: No I don’t know. I will ask.

  2. Hmm, funny thing, I wonder why you haven’t wrote about the fact that Unz’s article points out that gentiles are underrepresented relative to their qualifications?

  3. Hmm,
    As an Mainland Chinese, born in an poor province(HeNan) and graduating from an Top 10 university, I totally agree with what u say.
    The reason of all those phenomenons –the drastic competition of gaokao and the desire to go out of China–lies in one thing: No money, no living. As my uncle and father always say:”No matter what u do, you only can survive and get respect because of your money.” Haw-haw, funny but depressing……

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