Room at the top for rural students
New measures seeking to address the falling number of rural students at China's leading universities address symptoms, not root causes.
In the current debate concerning the number of rural students enrolled at leading Chinese universities, it appears that views on the issue, as well as measures to address the questions raised by it, are varied and divisive, respectively.
According to the conclusion of "Quiet Revolution: research on the source of students in Peking University and Suzhou University(1952-2002)" China's educational system and college entrance examination system play a positive role in enrolling more rural students. This is at odds with wider public concerns as to whether rural students really benefit from the existing Chinese educational system.
It is also at odds with some prominent opinions on the subject. Commenting in 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao said: "One thing we should notice is that rural students accounted for 80% or more of all university enrolments when we were at college. Now, though, things are different, and the proportion of rural students at university now is much lower".
This view is supported by research conducted by Professor Liu Yunshan from Peking University's Graduate School of Education. Liu's research shows that from 1978 to 1998, the number of rural students at Peking University accounted for between 20 percent and 40 percent of the total number of students. However, the research found that the proportion started to fall in the mid-1990s, with rural students accounting for between 10 percent and 15 percent at the university from 2000 to date.
Professor Liu's figures differ, then, from the conclusion reached in "Quiet Revolution", and she sees enrolment as a zero-sum game, which means that if universities enroll more urban students, there will be fewer places left for rural students.
Professor Liu's research concurs with the work of Peking University's Professor Li Wensheng, which shows that the proportion of newly-enrolled rural students at Peking University fell to 19.6% in 1996 from 27.3% in 1985, representing a drop of almost 8 percentage points in 10 years.
Urbanization may partially explain the fall, as China's urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time in 2011.
However, the main factor at play in contributing to the dwindling number of rural students at top universities is that of an imbalance of educational resources between urban and regional areas.
In terms of the college entrance recruitment system, the phrase ""everyone is equal before the score" would appear to be indisputable. However, this is not actually the case where rural students are concerned.
Because schools in rural areas generally have fewer competent teachers working in a more difficult environment, rural students have, to a certain extent, fallen behind their urban counterparts. As a result, asking rural students to take the same entrance exam, using the same grading standard, as urban students seems deeply inequitable.
In addition, Luo Lizhu Ed.D, found that urban students are 17.2 times more likely to be recommended for admission to top universities than rural students. According to the independent recruitment system, the figure stands at 8.2.
Furthermore, a study conducted by several Tsinghua undergraduate students in 2010 found that almost half of all students enrolled at both Peking University and Tsinghua University, China's top two universities, were from a small number of "super middle schools", known as key schools or experimental schools, in some provinces.
Hainan Province is a good illustration of this phenomenon. Of all students admitted to Peking University from the province, 70 percent are from the same "super middle school". Commenting on the impact of these so-called "super schools", Professor Liu Yunshan said: "The development of 'super schools', which are mainly at city or province level with abundant educational resources, will increase the imbalance of education resources which exists between rural and urban areas."
He continued: As the Matthew Effect explains, this will mean that good students will improve and the less able will fall even further behind, which is to the detriment of rural education in general. Therefore, fewer and fewer rural students are able to achieve high scores."
In order to improve rural students' prospects of gaining admission to China's top-ranked universities, Tsinghua University and Renmin University of China have both adopted new recruitment policies which are favorable to rural students. Such policies include the expansion of the independent recruitment areas to schools at county level and townships.
However, questions have been raised as to just how effective such policies will be. Professor Liu's belief is that the new measures adopted by Tsinghua and Renmin University will merely serve to address symptoms, leaving root causes untouched.
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