Top Chinese graduate schools ‘pull up drawbridge on test takers’

Leading institutions switching from exams to interviews for admission, but students from many universities are excluded from this route

二月 4, 2023
Fenghuang, China - September 19, 2015 The Old Town of Phoenix (Fenghuang Ancient Town). people are getting across the Tuojiang River in a drizzling day
Source: iStock

While millions of Chinese students anxiously await their results on the national postgraduate entrance examination, a trend of top graduate schools turning away from this student selection route has sparked heated debate in the country.

Questions were first raised when the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China, the top-rated communication school evaluated by the Ministry of Education, announced that its 2021 full-time postgraduate programme would take students only via a “postgraduate recommendation” stream. Other leading institutions, including Fudan University and Nanjing University, said they would further expand their enrolment of recommended postgraduates for the 2022 cohort.

Like the national admission test, “postgraduate recommendation” is an entry route to postgraduate study, but it allows institutions to assess academic performance and potential based on undergraduate study. Those on the recommendation track are exempted from the national examination and recruited by an application-based process.

“This is not a new policy, but it is true that more and more institutions plan to increase the percentage of students under this route,” Peng Pai, an associate professor in the School of Education at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, told Times Higher Education.

“The first reason is that many supervisors don’t consider paper-and-pencil tests a good way to assess innovation ability – those who pass the test by learning techniques like reciting and memorising are not necessarily suitable for postgraduate study. Second, expanding the ratio of these students is believed to help institutions competing for excellent students.”

According to a recent report, the number of recommended postgraduates increased nationwide in 2022, in line with a general expansion of postgraduate study, although growth has stabilised. In principle, universities should recommend no more than 15 per cent of their graduating class for graduate school entry, but “there are certain flexibilities in practical implementation”, Dr Peng said. For their part, receiving institutions are told to keep the proportion of such students below 50 per cent of their total recruitment, to leave places for exam takers.

However, as this is an overall limit at an institutional level, it might not be equally distributed among all faculties. Although only scattered figures are available, the 2022 enrolment plan at Peking University said its master’s in journalism and communication was only for recommended students. The same applied for Fudan’s 2019 research programmes in solid mechanics and in general and fundamental mechanics.

Such restrictions of entry by exam have triggered public concerns about efficiency and equity because only 366 Chinese universities are eligible to recommend students for master’s courses. As the need for postgraduate study is booming, if more universities expand recruitment, particularly for graduate schools and majors, students from institutions not on the list will be denied the chance to enter these schools.

“Traditionally, people think examination is a fair method. Many pursue postgraduate study for upward career and social mobility, so they care about opportunities; and once these opportunities are taken by other people with non-examination methods, they are affected,” Dr Peng said.

The competition is fierce between different tiers of institutions. Previously, some institutions set practical barriers for their recommended students to go to another university, but this practice was halted by a government notice in 2014. Dr Peng explained that the application procedure allows eligible students to choose three or four institutions, and those with better reputations are the top priorities, which “will surely impact on institutions not on the Double First Class [excellence initiative] list, but there has not been any study to measure this impact”.

A recent analysis found that recommended students had higher research participation, class engagement and research output than the exam takers, and in the First Class development universities, their “academic motives are higher”. But the results of a national survey by Dr Peng and his team on master’s students’ learning and development tell a different story, showing that non-exam postgraduate students in First Class universities do not necessarily have a better academic experience.

“The policy intention is to optimise talent selection and encourage a more diversified recruitment system,” he said. “But our study shows these students actually have lower intrinsic motivation – such as out of academic interest – than students who have passed the examination.”



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