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Migrating college candidates could be left out in cold
Latest Updated by 2005-08-04 10:27:25

The national college entrance exam, a standardized aptitude test in China, is an institution of meritocracy that has been revered over the years, except during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Meritocracy is supposed to be about fairness. But what if it contained a discriminatory element?

It seems even an apparently impartial system can give rise to cruel twists of fate, as a 16-year-old from Hainan Province recently discovered.

With a total score of 897, Li Yang came first among the southern island province's test-takers in the science category. But he may not get the chance to enroll at a regular college, let alone the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he dreams of studying. His mistake? He is an exam migrant.

A high school pupil who leaves his or her hometown for another province where the cut-off score for college admission is lower and chances of getting a place at university are greater is such a migrant.

Li Yang, a Hubei native, was not worried about passing the exam, but about getting into one of the nation's top universities. In Hainan Province there was less competition and therefore more likelihood of being admitted to Tsinghua.

But there is a catch. The local government requires each candidate to have Hainan residency and be registered with a local school for the last four terms of his or her senior high school years. Li is short by a month as he enrolled in October 2003, rather than in the customary September.

Why move?

Li Yang is not alone. There are tens of thousands of students like him, trying not only to get higher grades but also increase their chances of acceptance by a particular institution. As university education has such a great influence on career prospects, young students and their parents naturally do whatever they can to beat the system.

The national college entrance exam is the same across the country in design and scoring, but varies by province in terms of the cut-off line for university admission. The more high-scoring students there are, the fewer slots are available for each successful candidate as the number of admissions is determined by the educational resources in each province.

But there is government tinkering with the system as well. Places that traditionally lack education resources are given preferential treatment as national schools lower their cut-off scores for the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the Tibet Autonomous Region and Hainan Province, amongst others. This is similar to race-based affirmative action policies in the United States.

Metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai have relatively low cut-off scores because most of the top universities are located there.

This year's cut-off point for admission to elite schools to study the humanities is 486 points in Beijing and 572 in Shandong. It is not surprising that the few big cities have much higher candidate admission rates - about 20 per cent higher than the 2004 national average of 51 per cent.

Ace student Li is not typical - he would have won a place at a top university wherever he took the entrance exam. Most exam migrants feel their hope of admission can only be salvaged through geography.

Hard statistics are scarce, but the trend seems to be growing. In Hainan, one of the low-scoring territories, migrating students are coming in waves.

According to figures from the local education department, there were just 198 such migrants in 1999 but 9,800 this year. They now account for about 20 per cent of all pupils sitting the national college entrance exam in the province.

The migrant candidates hail from Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Hunan and five other high-scoring provinces, some of which are not economically advanced but churn out a disproportionately high number of overachievers in the life-changing aptitude test.

Which location?

"Exam migrants move just as water flows to the lower places," said Hong Chengwen, a professor at Beijing Normal University.

"It is only natural that the takers and their parents want to go to places where the yardstick is more lax - because they have detected the inequity," said Ding Dong, a Chinese culture scholar. "I don't think this is something to be judged now that we operate in a market economy."

The exam migration patterns are easy to follow. Few, if any, move to Beijing, Shanghai or Tianjin. It is virtually impossible to obtain residency permits in these municipalities that are administrated directly by the central government.

In Hainan, an outsider can buy a tiny apartment measuring just 25 square metres to qualify for residency. Hainan has plenty of unsold apartments left from the overheated property market in the early 1990s.

A migrant must shell out 4,000-5,000 yuan (US$493-616) for a residency permit and another 20,000 yuan (US$2,466) for two years of school fees, plus expenses. With almost 10,000 student migrants last year, millions of yuan was pumped into the island's economy.

Local schools enjoy the arrangement because most migrants pay tuition fees but only show up for a few exams. Their performances can help bump up the average score, giving the schools something to boast about. One Hainan high school suddenly added four more classes at the end of the spring semester.

Some private schools from the hinterland regularly send out recruiters to high-scoring provinces, promising one-stop services including securing a residence permit.

Schools in high-scoring regions do not like to see their students leave, but "What can we do? We also want the best for them," lamented a teacher in Heze, a city in Shandong Province.

Li's teachers in Hubei were impressed by their favourite student, recalling he had complained about the "hot weather in Hainan." He was pressured into moving by his parents, they explained.


While Li's teachers in Hubei hated to lose him, residents of Hainan did not really welcome him. They were open about resenting exam migrants they see as "predators."

"It may be an individual decision, but it negatively affects others' interests," contended Hong, who has been studying the phenomenon.

Hong brushed aside the argument that the migration is justified due to the imbalance in the distribution of educational resources.

"Equity in doling out education is an ideal, but it has never existed anywhere, any time," he asserted. "Most of the Ivy League schools are concentrated in America's New England area. In China, elite schools have never been evenly or fairly spread out.

"In the same vein, Tsinghua charges roughly the same tuition as a non-elite college in Shandong. Do you call that fair?"

Government policies cannot guarantee a fair deal for every individual, but are designed to protect the interests of the majority, Hong said. Even if there were 100,000 exam migrants, that would still be a drop in the ocean compared to the 17 million candidates.


Hong hinted that media exposure for exam migration is a double-edged sword. "It will propel more relocation, but the government will feel the pressure as well and pay more attention to the issue."

But Hong does not think the government has much room to manoeuvre.

"Most of the educational resources are at the disposal of local governments," he said.

"Look at Shandong and Zhejiang, two of the high-scoring provinces, and then look at Guangdong, which does not have as severe a problem in college attendance for local students. Why? Guangdong has set the goal of building itself into an education powerhouse and has been investing in it accordingly.

"The difficulty will be most acute in those provinces where the economy is not as vibrant, but education is even weaker," he warned. "But make no mistake. There'll never be absolute equality when it comes to a specific student."

Students like Li Yang may feel the full force of the struggle for equal opportunities. Hainan has recently modified its regulations so that property buyers no longer automatically get residency and national college entrance exam candidates must spend at least three years at a local high school, which means Li will again be disqualified next year.

Li could move back home, but if the Hubei government instigates a similar crackdown on exam immigrants he will find himself in limbo. To add insult to injury, the cut-off score for elite science schools this year in Hubei turned out to be lower than in Hainan - 524 compared to 542.

Unlike two-thirds of online survey respondents, Hong has little sympathy for Li Yang. "What kind of influence would it have on him if he had got through by exploiting a loophole in the system? He would think that he could always cut corners later in life, and that is bad for a teenager."

But should the future of a bright young man be ruined because his parents made an unwise decision two years ago?

Hong was philosophical: "If this young man is really as brilliant and multi-talented as those who know him have claimed, then he does not even need to worry about the exam system.

"Top American schools like Princeton offer scholarships to this kind of student every year. Top-rated schools in Hong Kong and Singapore would also want to sign them up. He should broaden his horizons."

However, all that most migrant students and their parents can do is to take financial or legal risks to get ahead in the scramble for university places.

Editor: Wing

By: Source:China Daily Website
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