Education: Competing Against the World
A major strength of the Chinese system is the esteem placed on education. Inequality is a problem, however.
In typical urban districts, students begin primary school at age 6. At age 12, they move into the Chinese equivalent of middle school and high school for six years. In the senior secondary years, students begin to fall into either the vocational track or the higher education track, leading to community college, technical college or a university. In rural areas, the government aims for half the kids to take each track.
Nationwide, the percentage of students going on to higher education is just under 20%. In major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, upward of 70% go on to higher education, a higher rate than in the United States as a whole. University admittance depends entirely on a student's score on a national entrance exam.
The central government's universities, such as Beijing, Tsinghua and Fudan universities, have the most prestige, followed by the less well-thought-of but more numerous provincial universities. China's higher education system, already the largest in the world, is under pressure to expand as more students, following the advent in the 1980s of a compulsory nine years of education, advance into and through secondary education, Postiglione says.
China spends less in percentage of GNP than many countries: Just under 3%, compared to 5% in the U.S. and its own immediate goal of 4%. (Florida spends 3.8% of its GSP on education.) China is searching for ways to encourage, against the cultural tide, the formation of productive, creative, assumption-challenging thinkers.
"The central leadership are very aware of global trends," Postiglione says. "They know what's good, but actually implementing it ... the context is so different. It takes awhile."
The central government has been pushing joint programs and exchanges of faculty and students between Chinese universities and foreign schools and has a goal of 10 world-class universities.
Su Ke hopes, if she does well enough on the national entrance exam, to attend one of the nation's top universities, Beijing Foreign Study University. Ever since she was small, her family and society have stressed that only a university education would mean having a "good life and earn a lot of salary." She says she and her peers envy American students because the U.S. has so many more good universities and many fewer people. She envies too that America teaches students the whys of things and encourages them "to realize their own ideas" rather than the raw accumulation of facts.
Competition is strong to enter the university she wants. She said after the exam that she just did "so-so." She would like to be a translator.