In less than a month’s time, China will go silent—literally. Construction work will be suspended, car horns will be silenced, and even dancing in town squares will be stopped.
Meanwhile, 10 million high school students will sit for the gaokao (高考)—China’s annual national college entrance examination. Their parents will wait nervously outside school gates, possibly feeling even more anxious than their children inside. Cheating, mental breakdowns, and superstitious test-takers (and parents) are par for the course.
Preparing for the gaokao is an all-consuming affair that takes up the best part of three years of a teenager’s life. 12 hours of study a day is considered just ‘adequate’. The months before the exam are spent memorising the volumes of information demanded by the examiners. An entire gaokao preparation industry has sprung up to help smarter students cope with the stress—and to cram as much informational fodder down weaker students’ brains as possible.
So why all the concern over an exam? Well, these students are taking the test that will determine the rest of their life and social status, as it is the only way to secure entrance into China’s most prestigious universities—or so the conventional thinking goes. As you can imagine, immense pressure is put on everyone to succeed—students, parents, and teachers alike are invested in the outcome of the gaokao.
All the gaokao fuss does beg a question: is it really necessary? The arguments in favour of examinations date back to imperial China, where the keju (科举) imperial exams make the gaokao look like a kindergarten spelling bee. As the only way to Chinese imperial officialdom, the examinations were a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. The imperial exam was also a way for bright but poor students to rise to the top, fuelling the meritocratic credentials of the imperial Chinese bureaucracy.
Similarly, the gaokao is a way to allocate China’s finite higher education spaces, given its large population and intense competition. According to the Chinese Education Ministry’s website, there are 2,914 higher education institutions throughout China, with an average admission rate of around 70 per cent.
The reality is, unless you can get into the top 100 first-tier institutions, your degree is just that: a degree. There are too many university graduates. And entry into the top universities is strictly determined by the gaokao score.
If you look at it from this angle, the gaokao is doing what it is intended to do: selecting the brightest students from the year’s crop of hopefuls.
In Malaysia, we too debate the merits of examinations. Our Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) exam is the first great academic hurdle Malaysian teenagers have to jump through. Though the pressure is nothing like China’s gaokao, anxious Malaysian parents also put their children through unrealistic burdens. Well-documented cases of suicide due to exam pressure constantly re-ignite the debate—only for it to fade away as quickly as it started.
Schools all over the nation constantly boast about their SPM pass rates (or straight A rates if they really want to show off). Every time SPM results are released (usually in March), the front page of every newspaper will be plastered with pictures of top students posing with their exam results. Like China’s keju and gaokao, the SPM is seen as the ticket to a good university, and a good career from there.
But is that really the case?
Let’s look at the meritocratic angle first.
Examinations are supposed to select only the best. That is, if you had the time, money, and resources to devote to preparing for the exam. If you are an average (or even below average) student with enough books and tutors to prepare yourself, you stand a much greater chance of success in the exam.
On the other hand, if you are bright but poor—the odds are stacked against you. Let’s say you have to help with your family’s finances and take on a part-time job. That’s precious hours wasted not studying. You (or your parents for that matter) are also unlikely to be able to afford preparatory materials or specialist exam tuition.
The mushrooming of tuition centres in urban areas is a sign of this. Whether you are in Kuala Lumpur or Beijing, there is always someone willing to help your child pass the all-important examination—in exchange for money. Of course, these tuition centres don’t come cheap.
So, is it meritocratic? In light of these arguments, it’s hard to justify that.
Secondly, let’s look from an employer’s point of view.
Surely getting good grades will lead to a good degree, which will ensure a good job?
Putting aside the graduate glut argument for a moment, let’s see what employers really want from their employees.
Of course, employers are looking for the right talent fit for the job. Someone with a degree in literature can’t become an engineer overnight. That much is obvious.
But employers also prioritise factors other than grades when looking for prospective employees. Prior work experience is the most important thing employers look for when scanning through a candidate’s CV, even for entry-level positions.
So, even if you did graduate from a middling university, an internship or part-time position will stand out to employers much more than your degree.
Furthermore, candidates with people skills will go much further than those with just a fancy degree. You won’t be successful if you have zero people skills, period. For the most part, people just don’t like to work with socially awkward co-workers. Networking and building friendships will get you much further in your career.
And speaking of networks, what differentiates elite universities from the others are the strength of their networks. Ever wonder why Oxbridge and Ivy League alumni are in positions of authority all over the world? It’s not the quality of their teaching alone. Their strength in networking allows any Oxbridge/Ivy League graduate—past, present, and future students—to tap into the strength of that network.
Of course, Oxbridge and Ivy League universities are highly selective. Only those from a certain background are allowed in. So former alumni instinctively know who they are dealing with when they see a fellow graduate.
The same goes for the top universities in China (and to a lesser extent, University Malaya). These universities impart certain values in their graduates through their teaching, campus culture, and networking activities.
This brings us to our third point: is it worth sacrificing the best years of a teenager’s life to chase the exam dragon? If you think that a) there is a realistic chance of getting into a top university; b) you believe in a meritocratic system; and c) you can afford it, then by all means. Entry into Oxbridge (or Beijing University) will set a student up for life—but not in the way you may conventionally think.
But if a student doesn’t gain entry into these top universities after all that hard work, what now? Let’s say he or she graduated from a top 500 university—not bad academically, but certainly no Ivy League. Will the graduate stand a chance in today’s job market? As mentioned, there are a glut of university graduates.
Is the job market adjusting itself to absorb these fresh-faced young people? Of course it is—but not in favour of graduates. As a society, we only need so many lawyers, doctors, and accountants. This means that graduate pay is at an all-time low, with many jobseekers settling for jobs lesser than what they studied for. So graduates need to differentiate themselves with a good set of soft skills as we mentioned above.
Conversely, many trades are suffering from a lack of manpower, due to graduates shunning vocational work. Every year, fewer and fewer young people are becoming apprentices. This is a shame, as carpenters, plumbers, and machinists make an honest living—much more honest, arguably, than, say, an investment banker.
Their skills form the backbone of our modern society—and as such are in great demand. Though many in Asia look down on tradesmen as blue-collar labourers, this should not be the case. Many trades are also evolving with technology, making their jobs easier. In addition, a tradesman’s earning potential is as great—or even greater—than someone with a bachelor’s degree.
And we come to the skill that no school will teach you—entrepreneurship. Look at the successful entrepreneurs around us. Who among these are straight A students?
Bill Gates was a Harvard dropout. Jack Ma took four years to pass the gaokao. Closer to home, the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong didn’t even complete his primary education due to the war.
Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. But they possessed a drive to start a business and run it. It takes passion, hard work, an appetite for risk, business savvy, derring-do, and a dash of luck. These skills cannot be taught.
These arguments are not meant to demean the value of education. Quite the opposite. Education is society’s great equaliser. It is undeniable that poor students have escaped the cycle of poverty by getting a good education, and a good job thereafter.
However, we as a society should not fetishize examinations. Of course they are an important yardstick of a student’s progress. They have their place. But a holistic education is of course much more than just preparing for the gaokao or SPM.
Hence, examinations should not be treated as the ‘end all and be all’ of a student’s life. Many are under the impression that good exam results will get them lucrative careers that will eventually buy them happiness and success. But we all know that money alone cannot buy success or happiness.
To quote the well-known phrase, happiness is a journey, not a destination.
So, to all students who are attempting the gaokao and SPM this year, we wish you the best of luck.