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Changes to university quotas spark protests

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Seven years ago WiC cited a comment by former Premier Wen Jiaobao, who was ruing the declining number of rural students at Chinese universities. “When we were at college, children from rural areas made up 80% or more of the students,” he told Xinhua, the state news agency. “Now it is different. The number of rural students has declined. This is something I often think of.”

The Guangzhou Daily followed up Wen’s observation with statistics that showed the proportion of rural university students had halved in the past 30 years. On the contrary, students from the cities have occupied an increasing proportion of college places (see WiC7).

Belatedly, Xi Jinping’s administration seems intent on reversing that trend.

For Chinese students, the gaokao (college entrance exam) and their hukou (i.e. where their household is registered) are the two most important factors in determining where they will attend university. Last week the Ministry of Education amplified the significance of an applicant’s hukou by announcing significant changes to the national enrolment system.

The new policy demands that 14 of China’s more developed provinces increase the proportion of university places offered to students from poorer provinces. The goal: to increase the opportunity for students from inland rural areas to study in better institutions, which are predominantly located in the richer coastal cities.

However this amendment met with a backlash from thousands of parents in more affluent areas who felt that they, or more accurately their children, would bear the brunt of this “affirmative action”. The Global Times reports that of the 210,000 university places being reallocated to poorer regions, nearly 80,000 will come from Jiangsu and Hubei provinces – a change that locals feel will make it harder for their children to go to university in their home towns.

Jiangsu province is being required to redistribute 38,000 positions to the poorer provinces. When demonstrators converged on the government’s municipal buildings in the provincial capital of Nanjing – holding signs demanding “fair education” – the head of the education department came outside and promised to listen to their grievances.

However, in its official response, the Jiangsu education bureau has denied that the planned changes would have any impact on the success rate of local candidates. According to reports from Sina News, the number of applications from local students to universities in Jiangsu has decreased by 60,000 over the last two years. The government asserts that this decline in local interest will now be offset by an increase in the admittance of ‘out of province’ students.

The discontent in Jiangsu and Hubei – where 40,000 inter-provincial applicants must be accepted – has been amplified by what residents see as an injustice in the system: that the nation’s top universities in Beijing – such as Peking University and Tsinghua – retain a disproportionately high number of places for students with a Beijing hukou.

According to, 25% of applications by Beijingers to the capital’s elite colleges are accepted. This is out of kilter with Beijing’s proportion of the Chinese population (more like 1.4%) – meaning that being born in the capital advantages locals when it comes to getting places at the country’s centres of academic excellence. (To be fair, this is not so dissimilar to the US, where there are complaints that because Ivy League colleges give preference to legacies – i.e. offspring of alumni – they entrench a privileged class of so-called wealthy “one-percenters”.)

Meanwhile in Henan – the nation’s most populous province and a place that the new policy is supposed to benefit – the complaint from parents is that competition is still too high. The South China Morning Post reports that the scheme will open a further 16,800 positions for Henan students across the country, but that is still 300,000 short of the total number of applicants.

Henanese have directed their frustration towards nearby Beijing. In an open letter written to the State Council, parents from the province complained that in 2013 Beijing universities accepted one in every 325 applications from locals, but only accepted one in every 8,900 from Henan.

(Rob Schmitz, a journalist with American radio show Marketplace, came across rural discrimination when he looked into the topic of university admissions: “Rural students use textbooks tailored to prepare them for a college entrance exam that was far more challenging than the one given in China’s biggest cities. The exam was designed to be harder because there were simply more students to filter out.” As a rural school teacher told him: “Among a sea of people, the test needs to sift through the sand to find the elite.”)

Well-intentioned though the new “affirmative action” is, it seems to have led many to vent their broader frustrations.

One wonders what Wen Jiaobao – now in retired seclusion – must make of it all…

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