When reform needs reform

More freedom to select students has not been an unalloyed good in China, says Hong Bing

March 13, 2014

The freedom for Chinese universities to recruit students independently of national college entrance exam results, which was considered a landmark higher education reform when it was instituted more than a decade ago, has recently come under scrutiny from both the Ministry of Education and the public. The well-intentioned changes, it seems, have brought problems in their wake.

The tip of an iceberg of negative consequences was spotted when accusations were levelled at Cai Rongsheng, director of student admissions and professor of trade economics at Renmin University in Beijing. According to the China Daily, Professor Cai is being investigated over allegations of taking bribes in the course of his recruiting duties. In November, he was detained in Shenzhen as he tried to leave for Canada using a fake passport.

Since 2003, when institutions were first allowed to recruit independently, about 90 universities have been permitted to enrol thousands of students based on talents in specific areas such as sports or arts. “Autonomous recruitment” has benefited many child prodigies whose potential might not have been identified by their performance in the gao kao, the national university entrance examination, whose rigid structure has become increasingly controversial.

But how could such a seemingly positive reform facilitate brazen wrongdoing?

In practice, autonomous recruitment does not allow prospective students to avoid the gao kao. But universities are allowed to set their own examinations for high-calibre candidates. Doing well in these exams means they may succeed in securing a place even if they fall up to 20 points shy of the university’s minimum gao kao tariff.

In a nation where every year more than 9 million students take the gao kao, even one point could make all the difference. This is, it appears, where the problems have set in.

According to Xinhua news agency, Professor Cai, who had already weathered online allegations about taking bribes, was exposed when a government inspection team was stationed in Renmin University last June. Since May 2013, 10 such teams have been sent to major government ministries, bureaux and state-owned enterprises to “supervise leadership”. Renmin was the only university inspected.

It is alleged that Professor Cai fled after the inspection team briefed the university administration about its “weak links” in autonomous recruitment.

According to the Beijing Youth Daily, Renmin academics and students are not surprised by the scandal. A Renmin student who had taken part in its independent recruitment exams for arts subjects said that the way the interview panel conducted its work “easily left room for under-the-table deals”.

In response, Renmin has announced that “in order for further regulation and improvement”, it will temporarily halt autonomous recruitment in 2014. Five other Beijing-based institutions, including the Beijing University of Technology and the Capital Normal University, have also stopped autonomous recruitment of students in arts subjects.

The Ministry of Education, meanwhile, has unveiled new regulations that require local education authorities and universities to publish their admission rules and standards, along with the results of independent exams. It will unveil a “master plan to reform college enrolment” in the first half of 2014, the China Daily said.

Looking from the West, one might think that more autonomy for Chinese universities is the way forward. But in China, things are sometimes rather more complicated.

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