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China encouraging overseas universities to accept gaokao exam results

More universities outside of China may soon accept China’s national college entrance exam, the gaokao. Yu Jihai, deputy director of the Division of International Education at the Ministry of Education, confirmed during a conference on education internationalisation in May that the Chinese government is “currently working on having foreign countries recognise the grades of China’s gaokao.

At present, a relatively small number of foreign institutions allow the scores of the rigourous gaokao to be used instead of traditional entrance test scores such as the SAT, IELTS, and TOEFL, while some – most commonly in Italy, France, Germany and Spain – allow only some components of gaokao scores to factor into admissions evaluations.

Those institutions that do accept gaokao results – whether wholly or partially – arguably gain an advantage in the increasing competition to attract Chinese students. This is because it cuts down on students’ stress, time, and expense by removing, or at least reducing, the demands of any additional preparatory courses and tests they would otherwise have to take.

Qualified to sit in world-class classrooms

In Australia, up to 60% of colleges and universities now accept gaokao results (accompanied by proof of English proficiency) from prospective Chinese students, following on from the University of Sydney’s decision to do so in 2012. This has been estimated to save students up to US$40,000 per year in tuition and living expenses. Zhang Feng, marketing manager for Australia and New Zealand projects at EIC Group, commented:

“The situation has changed as more foreign universities accept that Chinese students with high gaokao scores are qualified to sit in world-class classrooms.”

Fewer American universities are accepting gaokao scores, but last month, the University of San Francisco (USF) announced it would do so in combination with one-on-one interviews. This will allow Chinese students to skip the SAT preparation and test-taking that would have required up to an extra year of work and expense. The university will not even require students to take a standardised English proficiency test, evaluating language ability instead in the interview.

Stanley Nel, USF’s vice president for international relations, explained to Inside Higher Ed that the university’s new policy of accepting gaokao scores allows it to target students who “do well on the gaokao but not well enough to get into the Chinese university of their choice” and who then look abroad for studies. He said, “Our hope is in this way we can get at the very top students in China.”

Nearly half a million (459,800) Chinese students went abroad in 2014, an 11.1% increase over the year before. Of those, 21,300 were sponsored by public funding sources, 15,500 were employer-funded, and 423,000 – or 92% – were self-funded.

Less room for fraud

One of the benefits for institutions choosing to accept gaokao scores is that it reduces the potential for fraud, since the gaokao is stringently administered by the Chinese government and because other test scores previously required – genuine or otherwise – are removed from the equation.

The last several years have seen an increase in concerns about fraudulent student applications, and the Chinese government is naturally unhappy with the possibility that many Chinese students become associated with fraud when only a fraction of students are involved in cheating.

In its lobbying efforts to see the gaokao more widely recognised by foreign institutions, the Chinese Ministry of Education is making the point that students can only take the gaokao once, and in highly supervised environments. In contrast, students can take the SAT multiple times, an exam that Chinese students have to sit in Hong Kong or Singapore, outside of Chinese government supervision.

Exam reforms under way

One of the stumbling blocks to the gaokao’s wide acceptance has been that until now, different Chinese provinces set individual gaokao papers, preventing real comparison between students from different provinces. But the government is now changing this, mandating all students to be tested on one paper, regardless of where they are in the country.

In addition, it is broadening the scope of the test to dispel accusations that it fosters “rote-learning” among students; the test until now has focused only on math, Chinese, and English. It will in the future include “community engagement and volunteering as well as cultural and sporting activities.”

Evaluating gaokao scores

The gaokao is notorious in China for the years of stressful work it requires of students, many of whom then take the test but do not receive a score high enough to get into a top Chinese university. Those students are nevertheless well-qualified and foreign institutions that accept gaokao scores, as in the case of USF, therefore have access to a population of capable students.

“Millions of Chinese students sit the gaokao every year but only a select few enter the top domestic universities,” reports the China Daily News. “An increasing number of them are choosing to study abroad.

At the University of New South Wales (UNSW), for example, the undergraduate admissions policy is to look at the maximum gaokao score possible in a province, say 750, and then to accept students whose scores range from 80% to 88% of that maximum (in this example, from 600 to 660).

Li Baoli, a projects manager for overseas study consultancy EIC Group, adds, “The required scores for gaokao in many European universities are much lower than at top domestic universities.”

For Chinese students who have studied so hard for the gaokao but then failed to get into an elite Chinese university, foreign universities accepting slightly lower gaokao scores can only be a welcome second choice. USF’s Mr Nel noted that the policy right now is to charge tuition for students admitted based on their gaokao scores, but that there may also be merit scholarships of up to US$20,000 per year available for them.

Outside the gaokao

At present, most Chinese students applying to foreign universities have elected not to take the gaokao, studying instead for the entrance tests demanded by their destination and institution of choice. Those students generally have higher English proficiency as a result of the explicit training in English required by their choice of institution, as well as the kind of academic training that is in line with the educational system and philosophy of the destination country.

On the other hand, students who perform well on the gaokao have shown extreme academic discipline and, as the gaokao is revised and broadened in subject scope, it may further emerge as a relatively straightforward indication of a student’s academic standing.

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