Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Flunking gaokao not end of the world

By Colin Speakman (China Daily) Updated: 2014-06-03 07:36

A variety of options follow. Some good high school graduates may go on a gap year before going to university and others make the choice to take foundation degrees at colleges or "AA" degrees at American community colleges, both of which could facilitate their entry into a university later. They can start professional programs or enroll in online courses (popular in the United States), and later in their career join university courses (popular in the UK) or a university in the US as a mature student.

Put simply, not getting into a university at 18 is not the end of the world for students. At the very least, exams can be retaken. A university is not closed off. In the US, although the official length of an undergraduate course is four years, the average time it takes a student to complete it is 5.5 years. Students benefit from a credit system per course, can marry, work part-time and be in the university a bit later in life. It need not happen immediately after school.

But in China, most students aiming to go to a university do see the failure to do so as the end of the world. They feel that it is all or nothing. They feel ashamed when compared with their successful peers. They feel that they have let down their parents.

Society needs to reflect on this attitude, especially when every year 2 million students cannot get into a university. Teachers and parents need to prepare students for other options. Yes, a poor result in gaokao is disappointing but it is the start of an alternative path. The setback can be overcome. More importantly, students must realize that suicide is not a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Parents in particular must make their children feel that they love them regardless of their performance in gaokao and remove the stigma of failure from them.

An increasing number of parents in China are opting for a fairer system by preparing their children for entry into foreign universities, especially in the US, the UK and Australia. These students can thus bypass gaokao. Also, the heads of some Chinese universities have said that they would consider students' school records and head-teacher reports during admission.

Besides, the authorities are planning to reduce the importance of studying English by canceling the language ability test to give students more time to study other subjects. That may ease some pressure from students, especially for those that find the study of a foreign language very challenging. But that does not address the reality - that not all can be winners and society needs to respect those that end up taking a different route. That is the core issue - not getting into a university does not make one a less valuable member of Chinese society.

Remember, two "college dropouts" - the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates - changed the way we look at the world. And remember, not having a university degree is not the end of the world!

The author, an economist and international educator, is director of China Programs at CAPA International Education, a US/UK based organization that cooperates with Capital Normal University and Shanghai International Studies University.

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