The Chinese education system is dominated by the gaokao, the final school exam considered by many to be the toughest school exam in the world. The score achieved in the exam determines the future course of the students’ lives. In a country where just one in 50,000 students attend the top universities, and graduate employment is around 16%, the gaokao is everything. Pressure to perform well is immense, and cheating at it is punishable by up to seven years in prison.
By law, from the age of six, students must receive at least nine years schooling and, since 2006, students in compulsory education are exempt from tuition fees. To provide this, the state employs around 15 million teachers deployed over 500,000 schools. Preparation for the gaokao is grueling and requires immense effort by the student with many hours a day devoted to rote learning with little value is placed on creativity.
Students who perform well at the gaokao are unlikely to be the cleverest, the best thinkers or the future academics. Rather, they tend to be hard working rote learners with the ability to rapidly churn out answers in multi-choice exams. They will have spent many months taking test papers with the only goal being achieving top ranking scores. Yet it is these students who are selected by China’s leading universities which select future students exclusively by their gaokao score.
Does the gaokao stifle innovation?
Dissatisfaction with the current system is rife and has resulted in some changes. For instance, provinces now have some flexibility regarding content and students can to some extent select subject matter. Also, top universities recognize the importance of recruiting more rounded students and are introducing student interviews and other ways of assessing general skills. However, this is often opposed by many parents who consider it open to corruption.
There are concerns that this test-based system stifles creativity and it is often cited as a significant contributor to China’s apparent lack of innovation. For instance, students in the United States are challenged to conduct independent research and turn it into a research paper in an early age, but the idea of doing research or citing references are unfamiliar to Chinese students until they go to college. It isn’t surprising that the country is notoriously famed for its ability to copy ideas from other countries rather than creating new innovations. Gaokao reforms are having some impact on changing this, but only at the margins.
Alternatives to the gaokao
Middle-class parents are increasingly pursuing alternatives to the gaokao. These include schooling their children overseas or selecting a school that will prepare them for attending a college or university abroad. In the latter case, students follow programs that focus on English and offer an international curriculum and qualifications such as the TOEFL, SAT, and British A-level exams. While such facilities are available in some public schools, they are all fee-based.
The Growing Private Education
The alternative is private education. The first well-known private education provider in China was New Oriental. Its first school was opened in 1993, and today it runs over 770 learning centers and has enrolled over 27 million students. It is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has a market capitalization of around $62 billion. The overall size of China's private education sector is over $300 billion with an annual growth rate of 12.7%.
In addition to growing demand from middle-class parents, several additional factors are driving this growth such as changes in government policies; increasing levels of investment by education and other industrial sectors; and the rising popularity of online education.
Students following this route will be unable to attend Chinese universities, as they won’t have high gaokao scores. It is an expensive path as they must pay fees for pre-university education and for attending foreign universities. Thus, it is available only to the relatively wealthy, though the increasing numbers of middle-class families have led to more than 10% of students in the most affluent provinces enrolling in non-gaokao programs.
An ongoing Innovation in China’s Private Education Sector
While private education is playing an increasing role in China’s education system, it is also the driving force in developing partnerships with foreign stakeholders including European and American universities which are establishing a presence in the country. Some private education service providers are developing new ways to innovate and import educational concepts from other countries.
Over a quarter of universities and colleges in China are private with growth in the private higher education sector outpacing that in the public. Large companies provide much of the funding for the private sector.
An excellent example of such innovative Chinese private education providers is Wuhan Torhea Education Group and its China International Summer (CIS) Program (en.cathaypath.com). The CIS program recognizes that critical thinking, independent learning, and logical understanding and expression are crucial factors in gaining admission to American universities. Yet these are all areas in which Chinese students are weak.
To address this, CIS provides Chinese students with the opportunity to contribute to Ivy League research projects, helping students develop their own academic research projects by offering research classes, and data analytics workshops. Most importantly, every summer between June and August, CIS invites researchers from American Ivy League universities to China to lead the research projects. Since the start of the CIS program, it has worked with over 50 professors, including Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, and other thought leaders in their respective fields.
CIS made its debut in 2011 with just ten students and two small classrooms. Over the course of six years, it quickly expanded to hundreds of students and classrooms on the campuses of top Chinese universities, such as Tsinghua University in Beijing and Fudan University in Shanghai. The program keeps its research quality high by working with researchers from leading US research universities.
One of the program’s proudest accomplishments is the Eastern Asia History Research Center. As a part of the research center, the research studies on Southern Silk Road have sparked interests from many bright Chinese high school students.
In return, it has also provided tremendous rewards to the students who participated in the studies. Two of the four student participants ended up going to Columbia University with full scholarships. In the following year, another participant of the same research study, Lu was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania. It was a major surprise to many Chinese parents when they learned that Lu received 97 on TOEFL and 1970 (out of 2400) on SAT, scores that would be hard to match the UPenn “standard”.
But this example shows that the "standard" by top education institutes in the US is far more than just scores. In fact, academic and scientific research has always been a crucial factor for admission decisions. And this is where Chinese students going through the conventional education system in China are lacking.
Why do innovators like Torhea Education focus their education innovation on academic research? First, they believe that research demonstrates students' passion for a particular subject. More importantly, according to the research program director, Bangping Xiao, research is about expanding beyond the boundaries of current information and knowledge, so research projects require students’ imagination, concentration, and determination, all of which are key to their success in the future.
Impact of changes in China’s education system
While it isn’t possible to directly correlate changes to the Chinese education system to innovation in the economy, there are some positive signs. Venture capital investment is at record levels and in the top three globally for digital products, and the current generation of young entrepreneurs is now developing world-class products.
Soon there will be more PhDs awarded in China than any other country. The leading universities are receiving unprecedented levels of funding from both the government and the private sector, and it is anticipated that, within a decade, their research budgets will be the equivalent of the similar institutions in the US and Europe, with Chinese universities becoming the world’s leaders in science and engineering.
Even though most of China’s education system remains score-centric, private education is making an increasing impact; already there are signs this might be moving the economy towards higher levels of innovation.
The China International Summer (CIS) Program is one important on-going educational innovation is having a significant impact on how Chinese educators and students think about education. The results of this initiative from Torhea Education along with similar initiatives from other innovators in private education may well promote academic research to the frontier of the next generation of education in China.