School Days


I learned today that if I had been a high school student here in China, I would never have made it to the age of 18. Why? Because I am a person who gets super overwhelmed when there is too much on my plate and when 20 hours of my day are jammed packed with no time for me to breathe. Actually, I would think that such conditions are not healthy for anyone, yet millions of Chinese high school students experience such a demanding schedule.

High school education in China is so rigorous in order to prepare students for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or the Gao Kao, which is the sole determinant of entrance into Chinese universities. Since there are such high stakes in this exam, students have an extremely full schedule every day for four years. First of all, students have classes 7 days a week. Sunday is the only day that students have a half day. During the week and on Saturdays, students typically get up at 5:30 and start school at 6:15 am. They have classes until 11:45. There is a very short lunch break until 12:15. Students can then put their heads down on their desks and nap until 12:45. Every day at 12:45, students will have a math exam that lasts until 2 pm. Classes are followed from 2 until 6 pm; then a short dinner break and then more classes and exams until 10 in the evening. You would think that since classes go until 10 in the evening, there would be no homework (what more could be done??). However, students usually do have homework. My friend and student Happy admitted that she would not always do the homework (and can you blame her?). It is quite common for students to only have four hours of sleep a night.

Why so much emphasis on preparing students for admission into university? In a country of 1.3 billion, getting into university will not only determine your life for the next five years, but also your future career prospects, place in society, and your future economic niveau. Your parents as well as your future family will rely on your future job prospects and livelihood. Therefore there is a huge amount of emphasis and stress put on high school students. I’m told that it is similar in other Asian countries. Many of you reading this in the US many question how the importance of attending university in China is any different from the US. While it’s true that attending college and university in the US may sometimes afford one more opportunities than having a high school diploma, I have known many people in the US who have successful careers of their choice without the aid of a college degree. Also, while it is unfortunate that still many people in the US are shut out of attending college and university because of the cost, we are lucky to have excellent and affordable continuing education programs; technical and community colleges; and a higher education system that embraces lifelong learners and non-traditional age students (ie- students who are not right out of high school). Here in China, people’s sole opportunity to attend university is through the college entrance exam which is primarily taken in high school. Although there is no age restriction since 2001, students typically take the college entrance exam in their last year of high school.

The Gao Kao is the sole determinant of entrance in university here in China. No interviews, no college essays and high school record. It lasts for three-days and is issued nationwide across China once a year in June. I’ve been told that the exam is issued at the same time as well, so since China has one time zone (yes- one time zone), folks in Western China are get up at a ridiculous hour to take the exam at the same time as their counterparts in Beijing and other Eastern Chinese cities. The test encompasses everything students have learned since Kindergarten and includes mandatory tests in Chinese, math, and a foreign language (usually English in recent years but can also be French, Japanese or Russian). Other tests will include Chemistry, Physics, Biology, History, Geography and political education. There are different tiers of universities and a student’s score will determine her or his admission into certain universities. Students who do not perform well have the opportunity to repeat another year of high school and take the exam a year later. However, if the second test does not go well, a student may have to give up on the goal of attending university and look to alternatives such as attending vocational programs or seeking other career routes.

In addition to the student his or herself, the examination puts enormous pressure on the student’s parents. With China’s one child policy, parents put all their hope into their one son or daughter. In return, a son or daughter is bound by duty to their parents and is expected to provide a good life for their parents down the road in their golden years. Entrance into university will ensure that the child will have good career prospects down the road to thereby support their parents and future family.

The high competition for university entrance (ie, there are far fewer university spots than those who take the college entrance exam) has led to several phenomena in recent years. In recent years, many Chinese families have become wealthier and have more disposable income (perhaps the parents got into university themselves and have therefore had beneficial careers!). Students who have not performed well enough on the national entrance exam to get into the a highly selective university may have their parents pay for them to get a spot at a less selective university. This is the case at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics (NUFE), where I teach. I am at the main campus in the university district of Nanjing. However, NUFE has a campus outside of Nanjing where such students attend the first two years of college and then finish their last two years at NUFE’s campus in downtown Nanjing. I learned that my own beloved 2+2’s who will be going to Canada in two years also gained admission to NUFE and the Canada program because their college entrance exams were not high enough and that their parents paid extra for them to be admitted. I was saddened to learn this at first, as I was led to believe that my students were the cream of the crop. Also, it does not seem fair to me that students can be afforded such opportunities if their parents have the money to pay for them to be admitted into certain university programs. It remarkably resembles the role that money plays in college education in the United States. I find it ironic that income now plays a large role in college admission in China, a communist country, albeit only on paper.

In addition to families being able to essentially buy a spot for their child at a Chinese university, many Chinese students are now looking outside of the China for higher education. With the extra wealth and disposable income, many Chinese parents can now afford to send their child abroad for college (especially with the aid of scholarships) in the United States, Canada, UK, Australia and Germany. For American higher education institutions, this means a vastly growing market. Chinese students now represent the fastest growing group of international students at American universities. When I attended college in the early to mid- 1990’s there were probably fewer than 5,000 Chinese college students in the United States. A few of those students were my classmates at Mt. Holyoke. According to the Institute of International Education, over 26,000 Chinese students enrolled at US universities in the 2008-2009 school year. I expect the numbers must be at 30,000 for this year.

In addition to education institutions abroad being able to benefit from the tuition of an increasing number of Chinese students, native English speaker and educators are now in high demand here in China as well. Starting at a young age, parents pay a premium to send their child to foreign language schools; bilingual primary schools; and for private tutoring in English. Foreign certified teachers are in demand from Chinese middle and high schools as well as universities. This is no surprise with English (or other foreign languages) being one of the main tests on the national college entrance exam. Additionally, a new requirement since 2005 mandates that students pass a test here in China known as the CET, the College English Test, in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree here in China. More and more employers here in China also seek college graduates with the CET certification. With more and more students wanting to study abroad for undergraduate or postgraduate education, students are also eager to take tests such as the SAT, IELTS, TOEFL, GRE and GMAT. From my experience, it’s not uncommon for many Chinese students to know all these acronyms and be more familiar with them than most Westerners here.

Learning the ins and outs of the Chinese education system is one reason why I am excited to be here in China. While I never would have imagined even a year ago that I would be living in China and admittedly China was and remains to be a very foreign place to me, I appreciate the wealth of opportunities offered from relationships with our Chinese friends. I for one am glad that we are no longer in a day and age when the West and China are isolated from one another. I welcome the opportunity to learn from Chinese traditions, children, students, families, education systems and all that this land has to offer and am pleased that the US is also opening its doors more and more to our Chinese friends.

For further reading:

College English Test. December 21, 2010.

Levin, Dan. The China Boom. November 5, 2010.

Liang, Lu-Hai. Chinese students suffer as university entrance exams get a grip. Monday 28 June 2010.

National Higher Education Entrance Examination December 21, 2010.

Originally Published: December 21, 2010


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