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Rethink needed on education system
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About 10.2 million candidates, mainly senior high school students, sat the national college entrance exam on Sunday. According to the Ministry of Education, the number of candidates this year dropped by 3.8 percent from last year. In 2008, 10.6 million candidates attended the exam.

This is the first time the annual exam has seen a decrease in its number of takers over the past seven years.

As the world's largest exam, the three-day examination is one of the fiercest competitions a student may meet in their lifetime. Chinese often compare it to thousands of people squeezed on to a narrow bridge.

This year it is reported that 0.84 million students did not sign up for the college entrance examination. It sounds like good news, at least, students attending the 2009 exam may think so, as they are more likely to be enrolled by colleges as fewer people pack onto the same bridge. But before we come to that conclusion, we need to ask two questions: first, who has given up on the exam; and secondly, why did they give up?

Media reports suggested that the gloomy job prospect for college graduates amid the global economic downturns is to blame for the drop in exam takers.

Jiang Gang, the deputy director of the ministry's college student's office denied those reports during an earlier interview by Xinhua News Agency.

"The drop of higher entrance exam takers is mainly due to the decline of senior high school graduates." Jiang said.

However, some other figures may warn us that the reason is not as simple as Jiang says. Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics showed the number of senior high school graduates decreased from 8.49 million last year to 8.34 million this year. Namely, the total number of senior students dropped by 1.76 percent over last year, which is much lower than the drop in candidate numbers of 3.8 percent.

Take southwest China's Chongqing municipality as an example, nearly 10,000 students did not sign up for the exam despite an increase in this year's number of applicants for the college entrance examination. Most of them are from rural areas, according to reports by local media.

In sharp contrast to higher tuition fees, the worsening employment situation has forced some students from rural areas or low-income families to give up their dream of entering college. Since China started the education reform in colleges and universities in 1997, the college admission rate had kept a year-on-year increase over the years before summer of 2008, and at the same time, students' parents have to pay higher tuition fees. But before 1997, it was the government who paid the bill of higher education.

Although the government has offered different financial assistance, in the form of grants or loans, to low-income students, many of them have had to bid farewell to campus because their families could not afford their tuition.

Furthermore, the bad employment situation warns that even if you pass the college entrance exam and pay the tuition, you may not find a job.

Even before the economic crisis hit China, many college graduates have realized that finding a job is not easy. In 2007, it is estimated that some 1 million college graduates failed to find jobs. In 2008, that figure increased to 1.5 million.

In addition, some graduates are disappointed to find that unfair competition will hinder their chances of seeking a job. Parents who have more 'guanxi' (backdoor relations) can help their children get vacancy in local governments or state-owned enterprises, which are tightly connected with stable income and better welfare benefits. On the contrary, again, many students from rural areas or low-income families are excluded from the competition because their parents have no chance to trade power or money for employment.

When China resumed the college entrance exams in 1977, a young generation was motivated to study hard and change their fate through the exam. In China, the national college entrance exam is widely regarded as the battle to determine students' fate - a college diploma can help secure a decent job, stable income and a bright future.

But now, the shining attraction of the exam has faded.

Let's return to the question we raised at the beginning, 'is it good news that the number of exam candidates dropped?'

To answer this question, we need to know if those students gave up the exam initiatively or not.

If they did, it might be a good sign of changing concepts - entering university and receiving higher education is not the only way towards success, more young people have decided to realize their dreams through some alternative ways.

If they didn't, it reminds us to rethink our education system and employment situation. We need to provide fair chance of education or employment to everyone instead of forcing some vulnerable groups to give up in front of unfair competitions.

(CRI June 9, 2009)

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