NO CAR may honk nor lorry rumble near secondary schools on the two days next week when students are taking their university entrance exams, known as gaokao. Teenagers have been cramming for years for these tests, which they believe (with justification) will determine their entire future. Yet it is at an earlier stage of education that an individual’s life chances in China are usually mapped out, often in ways that are deeply unfair.
China’s universities offer more opportunity for social mobility than those in many other countries, says James Lee of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But the social backgrounds of those admitted have been changing. Until 1993, more than 40% of students were the children of farmers or factory workers. Now universities are crammed with people from wealthy, urban backgrounds. That is partly because a far bigger share of young people are middle-class. But it is also because rural Chinese face bigger hurdles getting into them than they used to.
The problem lies with inequality of access to senior high schools, which take students for the final three years of their secondary education. Students from rural backgrounds who go to such schools perform as well in the university entrance exams as those from urban areas. But most never get there. Less than 10% of young people in the countryside go to senior high schools compared with 70% of their urban counterparts. The result is that a third of urban youngsters complete tertiary education, compared with only 8% of young rural adults.
Expense is a huge deterrent for many. Governments cover the costs of schooling for the nine years of compulsory education up to the age of around 15. But at senior high schools, families must pay tuition and other expenses; these outlays are among the highest in the world (measured by purchasing-power parity). Many students drop out of junior high school—which is free—because rising wages in low-skilled industrial work make the prospect of staying at school even less attractive. Millions enter the workforce every year who are barely literate or numerate. Poor nutrition is also a handicap. Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Programme has found that a high incidence of anaemia and intestinal worms in rural areas affects educational performance.
In China meritocratic exams have been revered since imperial times, when any man could sit them to enter the civil service. For centuries they enabled the poor but talented to rise to high office. The gaokao is similarly intended to be a great leveller. But society has become increasingly divided between those with degrees and those who never even went to senior high. That will mean growing numbers for whom social advancement will remain a distant dream.