When college entrance examinations come around each year, testers with top-placing marks become a major topic of conversation. And behind this fever over China’s “top scholars” looms an atmosphere of fierce competition among China’s universities for these top-scoring young students.
For the past two years, as universities in Hong Kong have become hotter commodities on the mainland, the competition for top scorers on the college entrance examinations has become fiercer still, and the smoke of battle rises from all quarters.
Universities with deep pockets, like Peking University and Tsinghua University, have thrown money right and left, so that funds are being poured recklessly into the struggle to draw top-scoring students.
A hangover of China’s imperial examination system, the so-called “top scholars,” [or zhuangyuan (状元),] has always been hotly pursued commodities. In modern times, provinces have touted their “top scorers”, and now cities and even counties have started advertising their own scholastic elites.
Once a top scorer emerges, all paths are cleared for them. Officials step out to praise them. Media report on them. Companies announce their sponsorship . . . Various top-name universities then jump on the bandwagon, doing everything they can to recruit them. There is seemingly no end to the lures and attractions employed to invite interest, and universities send their own recruiters out en masse.
As China’s most esteemed institutions of higher education, with reputations to preserve, Peking University and Tsinghua University have the loftiest of ambitions concerning the scooping up of top test scorers [in the college entrance examinations].
But is there really so much value in these top scholars? Those who are familiar with Chinese history know that in the past top test results could open big doors. Still, precious few top testers ever accomplished anything of note, and fewer still achieved great things as officials [in the imperial government] . . .
Standardized tests have always borne a large measure of unpredictability. Most often where one places on the roster of test results reveals nothing, and high test scores do not reflect true ability or scholarship. If the testing content is unreasonable, test results are even less objectively reflective of a person’s level, much less their scholastic potential.
Generally speaking, so-called “top scorers” from ancient times to now were talented people, but that did not mean that they were “the best under heaven.” History teaches us that “top scorers” were those who had the highest scores among all testers, but this has no particular value in and of itself, and even less does it mean that [the top scorers] were of more value than the rest of those scoring favorably or toward the top. Anyone interested in researching the question could easily go and look at how many of the success stories in our society have been top test scorers.
I am sure the ladies and gentlemen at Peking University and Tsinghua University, which represent the pinnacle of our higher education system, completely understand what I’m talking about here. To make the point more directly, all of this running around and dumping of resources to scoop up top testers has very little to do with education. It is nothing more than a futile exercise in preserving the elite status of one’s own institution.
In the past, before universities in Hong Kong had entered the competition for top scorers, top scorers from various provinces generally went to Tsinghua University or Peking University. In recent years, as Hong Kong universities have stepped into the game, Chinese institutions sense a real danger that top scorers will be lost, and the media have also jumped on this story about the threat to the excellence of Peking University and Tsinghua University. This is why we’re seeing this situation now.
In fact, not long after the college entrance examinations were re-instituted, the competition for top scorers became the focus of the struggle for status among universities. As the state poured funds into Peking University and Tsinghua University, other universities could no longer compete with these front-running institutions in terms of attracting students. Competing for top scorers therefore became a two-sided battle between these universities, a way of showing up their “greatness,” so that whoever attracted the most top scorers was seen to have the edge, and no outsiders could even compete. Suddenly, competitors have emerged on the scene — and strong academic competitors moreover — so they begin to feel a sense of danger and crisis.
A sense of danger is a good thing, always better than taking one’s strength for granted. But the competition facing Peking University and Tsinghua from a number of well-known universities in Hong Kong comes not from the size of the scholarships on offer, but from academic freedom, from the quality of their teaching methods, from their international outlook, from the strength of their library and information resources. Our top universities do not make an effort to compete on these fronts, but seek only to offer financial incentives, which amounts to buying people over and not to true competitiveness.
The University of Hong Kong is a mirror on ourselves that is less distant that other elite universities. Because the admissions and enrollment capacity of HKU is limited, there is no way it can run off with all of our top-scoring students. But this mirror brings our own maladies and deformities into sharp relief. If we do not address our shortcomings, and if we do not wipe away the stains that blacken our own face, but rather respond only with more robust efforts [at the same sort of game], then there is really no way to save us.
This editorial originally appeared in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.
Homepage image of China’s Beihang University by Peiyu Liu available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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