Last week witnessed the largest in-class examination of any kind across the globe.
Yes, it was the gaokao (高考), China’s National Higher Education Entrance Examinations for admission into tertiary education. This year’s exams involved 9.4 million candidates.
The occasion can almost be perceived as a festival on its own. Over the course of the two days, youngsters grapple with their nerves while parents and family members hover around and assume the all-important role of support crew.
The stakes are high. In local terms, performance in the gaokao can make or break the future of a candidate. This is certainly hard to contemplate for those of us who aren’t from China.
A high-security event
Given the high stakes, it is no surprise that fairness in the examination and all the processes that surround this event is subject to public scrutiny.
In the interest of ensuring fairness, regions across the country use different security measures to minimise the probability of cheating, and to maximise the probability of catching any cheats.
Advanced technologies were deployed.
Finger vein recognition – a new-generation biometric authentication technique that goes beyond the use of fingerprints – was used to recognise the candidates. This was on top of the multipoint checkpoints, facial recognition and metal detectors that were put in place before the candidates enter the examination hall.
In some regions, drones were deployed to carry out surveillance of the examination halls and to intercept any radio signals around the test locations.
Some universities have gone even further by requiring their students to remain on campus (most students live on campus) to ensure that they don’t sit the examination on behalf of another candidate. Those who are granted leave, have to call in six times a day to report back.
For the first time, Chinese authorities have imposed strict rules to prevent cheating in this year’s exam. On 1 November 2015, an amendment was made to the Criminal Law that covers organising or facilitating cheating, and hiring others to sit state-level exams. Under this new amendment, those caught cheating can face a prison sentence of between three and seven years!!
Given that cheating has become a criminal offence, armed officers in the form of a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team delivered the examination papers in the city of Beijing for the first time.
The timing of traffic lights was altered to ensure that candidates could get to the examination venue easily. Other significant observations included crackdown on honking during the two-day exams, and police officers standing guard at every examination hall.
The Chinese government has increased its investment in education fivefold in the last twenty years. The number of universities has doubled in the same period. There are now more than 7 million graduates each year.
In recent years, the gaokao’s fairness has been flagged as a concern. But one would argue that to associate cheating with criminal law might be a bit far-fetched.
However, some suggest that the pivotal role of the gaokao in the futures of Chinese youngsters justifies this extreme measure.
If there’s no intention to cheat in state-level exams, then it should not be a concern that this is part of the criminal law.
But the gaokao itself does cause a lot of stress and places pressure on Chinese youngsters.
The fairness issue will go away if a student’s success is not dependent on the gaokao alone. In reality we know that success in the gaokao does not equate to success in life.
The gaokao brings out a competitive mindset in students who have to survive its rigours. This may or may not be a good thing depending on how the mindset will be used eventually. It unfortunately also brings out the opportunistic mindset of some of these students, even though the new anti-cheating laws and technologies are likely to curb this mindset somewhat.
*Professor Siah Hwee Ang holds the BNZ Chair in Business in Asia at Victoria University. He writes a regular column here focused on understanding the challenges and opportunities for New Zealand in our trade with China. You can contact him here.