Written by Luna A. Duran van Tijn
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ([OECD], 2016) “China has the largest education system in the world”, with almost 260 million students and over 15 million teachers in about 514,000 schools. While China prides itself in its advancements in the educational sector and has in fact paid a great deal of attention to its shortcomings, this article reveals that with such a large system come many challenges.
Setting the stage: China’s education system
Education bears great importance for the Chinese government (OECD, 2016). China has continued to invest heavily in its educational system on an absolute basis. Over the past 10 years, China has raised its educational spending by an average of 19%. With its belief that education is the foundation for national growth and modernisation, ensuring the compatibility of the system with the nation’s rate of such growth and modernisation as well as new educational demands and trends has meant continuous modifications and development in education reforms and programmes (OECD, 2016).
A particularly significant development in Chinese educational history was the Law on Compulsory Education passed in 1986, which held that all school-age children of Chinese nationality are entitled to compulsory education, and parents are responsible for registering their children in school and ensuring that they complete the required nine years of education (OECD, 2016). This law built an exhaustive system, outlining standards for schools, instructors, teaching and learning, as well as for funding education and the legal responsibilities of social sectors. Since the legislation was changed in 2006, all students enrolled in compulsory education are now exempt from paying tuition and other fees. Moreover, according to the law’s 2015 revision, textbook prices are limited to marginal profit (OECD, 2016).
As to the specifics, China’s education system is managed by the state, with limited involvement from private companies, and continues to grow more decentralised (OECD, 2016). The Ministry of Education has recently moved away from direct control of the educational system and towards system-wide monitoring, directing educational reform through legislative initiatives, plans, financial support, informational services, policy recommendations, and administrative tools. Governments at the county level are in charge of running and providing education in schools. Most of the time, provincial governments are in charge of managing higher education institutions (OECD, 2016).
As has been previously stated, students must complete nine years of compulsory education (OECD, 2016). Figure 2 presents a chart with an overview of the organisation of China’s education system. Prior to the 1990s, secondary schools accepted students based on the results of admission exams. The government has replaced the entrance exam for secondary school with a policy of mandatory enrollment based on the area of residence (hukou) to emphasise the compulsory nature of junior secondary schools and as part of an attempt to shift the focus of education away from test scores and towards a more integrated approach to learning (OECD, 2016).
Students have the option to continue with senior secondary education after completing the compulsory education (OECD, 2016). General senior secondary, technical or specialised secondary, adult secondary, vocational secondary, and crafts schools are the five different categories of senior secondary schools in China. Prior to enrolling in senior secondary schools, students must take the Zhongkao, a public test whose results determine admission. The government assigns pupils to various senior secondary schools based on these scores. In recent years, China has made major efforts to increase enrollment in secondary vocational schools in order to satisfy the rapidly changing economic and labour demands of the nation. Despite the fact that senior secondary education is not required in China, 95% of junior secondary school graduates completed their studies there in 2014, a particularly significant figure considering it was only around 40% in 2005 (OECD, 2016).
The first ten years of the twenty-first century saw a significant increase in tertiary education in China as well (OECD, 2016). The gross enrollment ratio for postsecondary education in China increased from 21% in 2006 to 39% in 2014. Various institutions and initiatives were founded during this time, and there was a significant increase in the promotion of international collaboration and mobility. The tertiary education system become more varied as a result. Undergraduate programmes’ admissions are based on students’ college entrance examination (gaokao) scores. Admissions at the graduate level are based on another entrance examination (OECD, 2016).
Main challenges to the Chinese education system
- Too large an emphasis on tests
As has been touched on in the Background section, test scores play a highly significant role in the education system in China. Although the country has replaced the entrance exam for secondary school with hukou, senior secondary education and undergraduate as well as graduate programmes still heavily rely on evaluation scores.
A departure from the former system, a New Curriculum Reform has been underway since 2001 that addresses every aspect of the educational system, including educational philosophy, goal, content, methodology, and assessment systems at all educational levels (OECD, 2016). The new approach changes the examination-focused study mode to lessen the load on the students by relying on a variety of metrics for student achievements. The goal of this new evaluation method is to assist students in realising their potential, understanding who they are, and gaining confidence. Teachers should be able to examine and enhance their teaching techniques with the aid of the evaluation system. The new assessment system mandates periodic evaluation of curriculum implementation and study of implementation-related issues in order to assist schools in developing their curriculum systems (OECD, 2016).
Major adjustments are also being made to the gaokao (OECD, 2016). In 2014, the State Council released formal recommendations for the gaokao system overhaul. To lessen the impact of standardised testing, changes have been made to examinations at various levels. This examination reform attempts to create a contemporary examination system made up of standardised exams, thorough evaluation, and various admittance criteria. It also seeks to support overall education system change. As agreed upon with the central government, Shanghai and the province of Zhejiang will serve as the new system’s experimental pilot regions. Each province has created its own strategy to implement this change. Other towns and provinces have also revealed their own reform initiatives for the gaokao, including Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong (OECD, 2016).
Still, however, many sources within China as well as reports highlight the still-existing emphasis on test scores. In an article by Didi Kristen Tatlow (2014) in the New York Times, professor of education at the University of Oregon Yong Zhao revealed that the fundamental disregard for children’s individuality, hobbies, and passions in the Chinese educational system has resulted in a uniform student body. Because it compels students to spend practically all of their free time studying for exams, it leaves little time for leisurely pursuits like exercise. The intense rivalry also puts Chinese students under a lot of stress, which can harm their confidence and impair their self-esteem. Zhao also claimed a meaningful education, which focuses more on assisting each kid in growing than on pressuring them to get high test scores, is hampered in China by an overemphasis on test results (Tatlow, 2014).
In another article, one by Mark Kitto (2012) for Prospect Magazine, the focus on testing and scores is further illustrated as Kitto states that “the domestic Chinese lower education system does not educate. It is a test centre. The curriculum is designed to teach children how to pass them.” He continues, “schools do not produce well-rounded, sociable, self-reliant young people with inquiring minds. They produce winners and losers. Winners go on to college or university to take “business studies.” Losers go back to the farm or the local factory their parents were hoping they could escape” (Kitto, 2012).
Finally, reports on Chinese schools have led education experts to contend that this emphasis on exam-based education is the main cause of China’s high dropout rate (Moxley, 2010). A study by Northeast Normal University’s Institute of Rural Education from May claimed that the dropout rate in some rural areas was as high as 40 percent. The findings were ascribed in the research to “school weariness,” or exhaustion and apathy brought on by memorization drills and cramming (Moxley, 2010).
- A cutthroat system and mental health
Worthy of its own section, albeit related to the previous challenge ascribed to the large emphasis on test scores, are the consequences on the mental health of Chinese students as a result of the harsh educational system in China.
According to the Annual Report on China’s Education (2014), or the Blue Book of Education, researchers closely examined 79 elementary and middle school suicide cases from 2013 and discovered that nearly all – 92 percent – occurred after a teen had experienced stress related to school, in some cases an argument with a teacher (Xinying, 2014). The second part of the school year, when children often suffer higher stress because of high school and college admission examinations, saw a 63 percent increase. The study included cases such as that of a middle school student in Hohhot who committed suicide by jumping off a building after learning that his test scores had dropped and of a 13-year-old boy in Nanjing who hanged himself at home for failing to finish his homework. The case of a girl in Sichuan province who cut her wrist and ingested poison afterlearning the results of her college entrance exam was also included. Suicides like these reveal the immense pressure students feel in China as a result of their studies, a concerning image of its educational system (Xinying, 2014).
- The rural-urban gap
A third, rather crucial challenge to China’s education system has to do with the large gap between access to education in rural China compared to its urban counterparts.
China’s unprecedented levels and rates of urbanisation, with the urban population approximately tripling, hundreds of millions of Chinese have seen their quality of life improve and transformed by urbanisation (OECD, 2016). Nonetheless, it has also brought forth a number of significant societal problems. Among the most important issue is equal access to education. Not only should every child have access to school, but they should also have equal access to quality education.
Although the Chinese government has prioritised educational equity in compulsory education through a number of programmes in order to narrow the rural-urban gap, these have only solved a part of the problem (OECD, 2016). For instance, improvements have been made in infrastructural areas but even while the educational environment is improved, other considerations, such as fewer opportunities for advancement and a poorer standard of living in rural regions, make the teaching force deficit a significant issue. In this regard, policies have been made to attract more teachers in rural areas, but there is more required than just policies; broader efforts to improve social and economic opportunities in less developed parts of the country need to be addressed first (OECD, 2016).
An opinion piece by Helen Gao (2014) for the New York Times also explores this, arguing that “While many of their urban peers attend schools equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained teachers, rural students often huddle in decrepit school buildings and struggle to graspadvanced subjects such as English and chemistry amid a dearth of qualified instructors.” Additionally, she highlights research showing that a candidate from Beijing has a 41-fold higher chance of being accepted to ‘Peking University’ than a comparable applicant from the underdeveloped, predominantly rural province of Anhui (Gao, 2014).
Gao’s (2014) piece also connected the rural-urban gap to corruptive practices, stating “Parents fork out tens of thousands of dollars under the guise of “voluntary donations” to secure a slot for their children in elite elementary schools. (…) Further advantage can be purchased by parents who can pay handsomely to hire teachers to offer extra tutoring to their children, a practice discouraged by the authorities but widespread in reality” (Gao, 2014).
An added challenge to the presented gap stems from the hukou system (OECD, 2016). Large-scale internal migration brought on by China’s economic growth has substantial educational implications for both families and the government. With neighbourhood residency as the main basis for determining school enrolment in China, this means that migrant children must remain the same as their place of birth. Those who choose to remain with their parents will have restricted access to schooling (OECD, 2016). Gao (2014) also touches on the effects of this as she explains that the hukou system denies rural children the right to enter urban public schools, forcing many of these migrant children to attend private schools that charge higher tuition fees. The unfortunate reality for many, she states, is that they “have no choice but to send their children back to their rural hometowns. Then, on the other hand, there are the children who separate from their parents and stay in their home regions, commonly referred to as “left-behind” children. They, more often than not, suffer from both mental health and educational effects (Gao, 2014).
- Authoritarianism in higher education
According to political scientist Elizabeth J. Perry (2015), China’s Communist party-state has created a variety of techniques to monitor and control student behaviour. Politically dependable peers serve as the leaders of the “homerooms” (banji) and “class years” (nianji) and act as a conduit for information to and from the university administration. Peer pressure and oversight are integrated into the professional monitoring hierarchy. The “guidance counsellors” (fudaoyuan), trained employees entrusted with maintaining careful tabs on their student charges to ensure that their ideas and behaviour do not cross predetermined lines, form the cornerstone of the control system. These guidance counsellors, who are aided by student informants, report directly to the deputy party secretaries responsible for student work (Perry, 2015).
These control procedures have even “modernised” in recent years thanks to new methodologies and tools (Perry, 2015). For instance, mental health facilities are now a common sight on Chinese college campuses. However, in China, the term “mental illness” is used to refer to beliefs and tendencies that the government deems to be politically dangerous, and the findings of the required mental health screenings given to first-year students are shared with political cadres for analysis and potential preventative or punitive action. Furthermore, the proliferation of the internet and social media has made it possible to gauge (and direct) student opinion in yet another “modernised” way. Counsellors and cadres counteract suspicious or subversive information on popular social media platforms (such as Weibo and WeChat) by commissioning counter-posts that support the officially sanctioned viewpoint in addition to censoring it (Perry, 2015).
In an effort to sway student sentiment in favour of the CCP’s objectives, the party-state uses both proactive and reactive methods (Perry, 2015). Military training (junxun) and ideological and political education (sixiang zhengzhi jiaoyu) have been required courses at universities since the 1990s. These lessons and activities aim to instil dispositions and conduct that support the dictatorship. Teaching “cultural proficiency” (wenhua sushi) and “national character” (guoqing), which present Chinese history, art, philosophy, and literature in ways that present a natural relationship and fundamental compatibility between the splendours of China’s ancient “tradition” and its modern “socialist” system, has gained importance in recent years. As such, universities are a crucial element of a vast party-state project in cultural governance that aims to persuade people that CCP rule is justified by “Chinese characteristics” that make it both essential and natural (Perry, 2015).
Although education in China has become a priority in recent decades, and has made great progress in its achievements and reforms, the country still faces some significant challenges. From an overemphasis on test scores that fail to create more well-rounded students and has adverse effects on students’ mental health to discrepancies brought about by the rural-urban gap, China needs to reform their zhongkao, gaokao and hukou systems to ensure a more balanced, equitable, quality education for all.
The fourth challenge discussed in this article, namely the control and subtle propaganda systems infiltrating the higher education levels in China, from a democratic perspective, limits students’ ability to form essential critical abilities. This challenge in particular is one that seems difficult to see addressed as it is actively pursued by the government and would therefore, rather than be seen as a challenge, be seen as a tool. This makes this challenge particularly complex.
Chen, Y. (2017). Issues of the Chinese Education System. Leadership Society of Arizona. https://leadaz.org/2017/03/13/issues-chinese-education-system/
Gao, H. (2014). China’s Education Gap. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/opinion/sunday/chinas-education-gap.html
Kitto, M. (2012). You’ll Never be Chinese. Prospect Magazine. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/50279/youll-never-be-chinese
Moxley, M. (2010). CHINA: Alarming School Dropout Rate Blamed on Teaching Methods. Global Issues. https://www.globalissues.org/news/2010/06/30/6153
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2016). Education in China. A Snapshot. https://www.oecd.org/china/Education-in-China-a-snapshot.pdf
Perry, E. J. (2015). Higher Education and Authoritarian Resilience: The Case of China, Past and Present. Harvard-Yenching Institute Working Paper Series. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:30822717
Tatlow, D. K. (2014). Q. and A.: Yong Zhao on Education and Authoritarianism in China. The New York Times. https://archive.nytimes.com/sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/q-and-a-yong-zhao-on-education-and-authoritarianism-in-china/
Xinying, Z. (2014). School Tests Blamed for Suicides. China daily. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2014-05/14/content_17505291.htm