Earlier this month, somewhere north of nine million high school seniors sat China’s national university entrance exam, commonly called the gaokao. One can read plenty of commentary about the gaokao online (here’s one nice summary); here I look at the gaokao’s effect on the university-sector business education providers in China.
Many countries have national-level university admissions exams – Japan’s and Korea’s are notorious. As in China, these fellow-traveler neo-Confucian societies have university systems beset by bureaucratic sclerosis, but the academic institutions themselves are the final arbiters of admissions. Japan’s universities individually administer a second round of testing, and Korea’s consider academic performance in high school.
B-schools’ parent institutions in China have admissions departments, but they are merely clerical: Once the gaokao results are in, China’s provincial governments transfer a slate of "accepted" students to the b-schools, which then act as order-takers only. (Though to China’s credit, the government and the universities are striving to evolve the system – a small percentage of exceptional candidates are now considered for admissions by the schools themselves).
Nationally administered entrance exams have a clear upside in all three countries. They are widely seen as exams that, regardless of their flaws, are objective and not subject to "backdoor" admissions based on personal connections.
Nonetheless, China’s extreme version of the system, which extends control over not just test administration but also admissions, stunts the growth of Chinese institutions at a time when China, starting with a weaker academic environment but much stronger growth prospects, should be developing more quickly.
Since the gaokao system renders the universities mere recipients of, and not competitors for, inbound students, the universities need not deliver incremental service quality to attract and retain students and develop lifelong relationships. They need not work hard to ensure that the classroom experience delivers perceived value. No wonder Chinese university students say, "In a Chinese university, one of the most valuable things you learn is how to teach yourself." And no surprise that alumni relations at the Chinese b-schools are a pale reflection of what such alumni relations are in the countries where b-schools actually compete for students.
The damage caused by state control of the Chinese university system goes far beyond the gaokao system, and far beyond the scope of one column. Even in Japan and Korea, something like two-thirds of the universities are private, with Waseda and Keio in Japan, and Korea’s Yonsei and Korea University being among the top in their respective countries. In China, fewer than 10% of universities are private, none is even close to being a leader, and none is favored (or cursed?) with the massive investments China’s government sector has made in university development in the past 15 years.
We may view the gaokao system as a canary in a coalmine; the number of test-takers fell this year by nearly half a million. That’s largely down to demographics (the one-child policy), but partly down to the perception that a university education here is not worth the candle. High school students vote on the value of a bachelors degree by not showing up for the gaokao and employers vote with their wallets. Growth in salaries for fresh graduates in China has not kept pace with growth of other aggregate indicators like minimum wage and managerial-sector wages.
Reform of standardized university admissions tests is hugely difficult and controversial anywhere – and the Chinese government has a full slate of issues to address. But a decent education sector must be near the top of the list. Watch the gaokao system for evidence of how China is doing on improving university-affiliated business education. If the canary stops chirping, well…
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.