Written by Huang Wei.

China’s State Council recently issued Implementation Opinions on Deepening the Reform of Admission System ([2014] No.35), which outlined the forthcoming reform in higher education admission. The guiding principle of the proposed reform is to enhance the fairness and efficiency of the selection of talent. Pilot reforms will start in 2014, expand nationwide in 2017, and be completed by 2020. Measures outlined in No. 35 document include adjustment of enrolment quotas with more allocated to less developed regions, reform of the form and content of exams to better guide education and avoid a score-oriented teaching style, adjustment of preferential policies in admission including “specially awarded scores” and independently managed admission processes, improvement of the supervision and management system, and pilot reforms of college entrance examination to explore diversified admission policies. The new policies are applauded by the Chinese public and thought highly of by observers, and No. 35 document is seen as another milestone of China’s reform of its admission system. Yet it is not enough, for cultivation, selection and management of talents are three indispensable components of a strategy to improve human resources as part of China’s national power, and the principles of fairness and efficiency should govern all three processes.

Corresponding to the two tenets of fairness and efficiency, the reform of admission system has two far-reaching implications, one in itself as the selection process of China’s human resources, the other in its guiding influence on the orientation of China’s education system as a whole. The latter is not discussed here because it evolves technical details of examination designs. The significance of the former is greater in the case of the No. 35 document due to the social context and the time scale. After more than three decades of economic reforms, social inequality in China is now appalling, and both the Chinese government and ordinary people are aware of it. Worse than the current inequality there is an increasingly rigidified social structure, featured by slow inter-strata movement, more inter-generation inheritance and distinct strata boundaries. Decreasing social mobility diminishes ordinary people’s expectations for future, and people are more likely to be desperate when they lose hope. This explains why many risks exist in China and the government has to spend much on sustaining domestic stability. Analysts rightly observe that social justice should be held as the fundamental value of China’s reform, and measures initiated by the No. 35 document are a timely response to the concerns of ordinary Chinese people.

Speaking of higher education admission in specific, urban/rural, regional and rich/poor discrimination is blatant. The percentage of college students with rural background has declined over recent decades.It is 18 times harder for candidates from Shandong province to be admitted into Peking University and Tsinghua University (the best ones in China) than their counterparts from Beijing. Preferential policies in admission including “specially awarded scores” and independently managed admission processes leave margins for wealthy and influential parents to manoeuvre. No. 35 document wages war, though moderate, against all these. This is why it is extolled as the infrastructure for a fair society.

However, reformed selection process alone cannot form a stable infrastructure of China’s human resources strategy if fairness and efficiency are not simultaneously promoted in the cultivation and management of human resources. According to No. 35 document, special quotas for admission into top universities will be allocated to least developed regions, which grow from 10,000 in 2012 to 50,000 in 2014. This “visible hand” is quick and powerful in the short-term, but if not coordinated with human resources cultivation and management policies, this will not be any different from soothing the symptoms of the disease without treating the cause. What if students from abject poverty who don’t perform well enough academically due to disadvantaged educational resources are admitted to top universities thanks to the special quotas, find it hard to catch up with the curriculum and barely graduate, then fail to get a decent job in big cities but don’t want to go back to their hometown either? After all, China has not reached the point where it can afford everyone to go to university, and admission system is the selection of human resources, not welfare for all, and requires fairness of process rather than equality of result.

What also needed is reform of the cultivation process of human resources, which refers to school education at all levels, especially primary levels. This is when and how everyone should be provided with equal access to social resources for education. Urban/rural, regional and rich/poor educational injustice is to be addressed thoroughly. Chinese decision makers should look more at rural schools which still face scarcity of teachers, dilapidated schoolhouses and lack of teaching necessities than schools already having multimedia-equipped classrooms and native English teachers. As the Chinese saying goes, it is easier to add embroidery to brocade than to offer coal to those who are caught in heavy snow. Such onerous tasks are exactly what the government is for.

In addition to fairness, efficiency is also crucial in the cultivation of human resources, which is imbedded in daily teaching and learning of both knowledge and ideology. It is a well-accepted argument that examination-oriented schooling, as an incentive for conformity itself, deprives Chinese students of creative and constructive thinking. The situation is worse in terms of ideological education as an important element of political socialisation. Untenable positive propaganda about social phenomena baffles Chinese young minds, leaving them at loss as what to do. On the one hand, ideological education imbues the public with a utopian picture of society, urging people to behave selflessly and generously in a communist way; on the other hand, mass media focus their lenses on real people, drowning in the “belief vacuum” left by clash of traditions and capitalism. In daily life, passers-by ignore fainted old people on the street for fear of being blackmailed by their relatives; women’s attitude towards marriage resonates with the claim “I’d rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bike”; ambulances with sirens on are stuck in the traffic because no drivers would make way for them; corrupt officials are revealed to own billions of assets and dozens of mistresses etc. These have more influence on young people than “China Is Touched” Figures of the Year, for not all human beings are born noble.

In the meantime, 1.5 million young people registered for 2012 national civil service exam, competing for around 20,800 positions in the state-level bureaucracy, not to mention the large number of those aiming at local-levels. The recruitment of street cleaners in Harbin attracted around 3000 bachelor degree holders and 29 postgraduates, simply because the positions were “within the system”. Instead of fighting against social injustice, young people strive to drill into the system and become a member of the privileged class. This sadly reinforces the unfair aspects of China’s current social system, and narrows the hope for progress. It is easier to impose rules than to make them actually work. The Chinese government prohibited smoking in indoor public spaces since 2011, but no one ever obeys. Political reform faces the same conundrum. China should design a better political system instead of borrowing western democracy, while getting its people psychologically prepared and ideologically qualified. Ideological education should establish new moral goals that are universally acceptable and generally achievable, accompanied with operationalised guidelines and legal guarantee for good deeds.

The third pillar of China’s human resources strategy is management, which should alleviate “brain drain” both internationally and domestically. In the international context, China is losing its talents to developed countries. Outstanding Chinese students win scholarships for further education and stay to work overseas. On the other hand, overseas educational institutions profit a lot in rich students from China, many competitive ones of whom also stay after they graduate. The Chinese government has announced various policy initiatives to attract global experts, but there are two problems. First, although the gap between inward and outward flows are narrowing, it is doubtful whether China has won back its most outstanding talents. Also, at the top level, China does not attract foreign experts as much as overseas institutions attract Chinese. Second, existing policy initiatives are too focused on the initial period after overseas talents come back to work in China, lacking long-term arrangements. It should always be borne in mind that experts don’t come to China and work in a privileged enclave, but live in Chinese society, and will sooner or later face the social problems that exist there. If this is not taken into consideration when making relevant policies, the preferential relationships China painstakingly builds with returning experts will not last. By the same token, less developed regions in China have to rise to the challenges of domestic “brain drain”, when some college graduates “ant tribe” would rather live in appalling conditions in big cities and spend over two hours a day in commute than working in less developed places. In the meantime, 9.3% of college graduates are still struggling with unemployment and another 2.1% have simply given up any hope of finding a job or getting further education, despite a nationwide labour shortage. Again, the Chinese government should increase policy initiatives to balance its human resources domestically, which aim at long-term adjustment instead of one-off incentives.

Huang Wei is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, and Visiting Research Associate at Johns Hopkins University.