Parents of students newly arrived at university in Wuhan sleep on the floor of a gymnasium on the campus as they help their children settle into university life
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Every year at this time, thousands of parents sleep on the floor of university gymnasiums throughout China, eager to help their precious only child secure what for many is the family’s chief asset: a degree from a Chinese university.

But in recent years that certificate has lost its lustre: hundreds of thousands of Chinese families have voted with their tuition dollars to avoid the domestic university system and send their child overseas to study. The flight from Chinese universities has accelerated to the point where nearly one in three international students in the US is now Chinese (a total of 287,000). And education experts back home say the deficiencies of the local university system – from excessive bureaucracy to poor-quality teaching, from corruption to lack of academic freedom – are largely to blame.

The difficulty in navigating these choices was highlighted in early September when three of China’s leading universities responded to a call from President Xi Jinping to intensify “ideological education” in China. The Chinese Communist party committee of Fudan University, one of the mainland’s most prestigious, published a commentary in the official press saying: “It is an extremely important political mission of the party committees at universities to guide middle-aged and young teachers who lived overseas for many years – and are tempted to compare the developmental levels overseas with ours, who have only an obscure knowledge of the social system, development path and values of our country – to overcome their shortages and grow in a healthy way.”

For centuries, when much of the world was sunk in the dark ages, China boasted one of the world’s most advanced education systems. From the seventh century until the early 20th, its renowned “imperial examinations” controlled entrance to the ranks of the Emperor’s civil service; scholars spent years preparing for them. But Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, which targeted universities along with other symbols of privilege, hobbled higher education in China for a decade. By the time universities resumed normal admissions in the late 1970s, only about a quarter of a million students were enrolled for university study each year – out of a total mainland population of nearly 1bn. Since then, university admissions have exploded: by 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, China was turning out nearly 7m graduates a year, or three-quarters of those who sat the college entrance exam, known as the gaokao, compared with fewer than 5 per cent of those who sat the exam in 1977. The goal is to educate 40 per cent of those of university age by 2020. According to the ministry of education, 34.5 per cent of that age group were in higher education in 2013.

Students wearing t-shirts with the slogan “fear nothing” prepare to sit the 'gaokao'

But numbers are not everything – local education experts criticise the domestic university system for failing to turn out the kind of creative thinkers on which the increasingly innovative society depends for future growth. “The kids who have the best memory and ability to conform to the system succeed, but their number one quality is an ability to take orders and be micromanaged,” says Jiang Xueqin, education consultant. “That kind of student is easy to manage at junior levels, but at senior levels they have never learned the things that allow them to be good managers,” he says, echoing complaints often heard from multinational employers in China.

Beijing is aware of the problem and has adopted a decade-long plan to reform the university system – and the much-hated gaokao. But at almost the mid point of the plan period, which covers the years 2010-20, not much has been achieved, education experts say. Parents and children, increasingly exposed to overseas education systems through travel, are less and less willing to submit to the rigours of the current system, which relies on years of rote learning and memorisation to pass an exam whose relevance is increasingly coming into question.

The number of students taking the gaokao has declined from a high of 10.1m in 2007 to 9.4m last year, partly because it requires at least a year of near round-the-clock study, sometimes with the support of a parent who must give up their job to ensure the test taker can devote every waking moment to hitting the books. Only those earning the best scores can gain entrance to China’s top universities; the rest are left in mediocre provincial institutions or studying subjects not of their choice. “The problem with Chinese higher education is that universities in China are run by the government. They are overly bureaucratic and have no autonomy,” says Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing. “You end up with 1,000 universities that are all alike – and they focus too much on scale and not enough on quality,” he says.

The reform plan calls for administrative power to be devolved from central government level – heads of 31 top Chinese universities have a civil service rank equivalent to deputy minister in the current system – to local government and then to the university itself. Schools would also be given more autonomy in choosing students, and students in choosing schools, and there would be a relaxation of the ultra-rigid gaokao. Some autonomy is built into the current system: bonus points are awarded to those participating in some sports and international competitions, to minorities and even sometimes to rural females (to help redress a gender imbalance in rural society). Extra “morality points” are also available.

Undercover tricks: equipment used by students to cheat, and confiscated by the authorities

But giving universities more power over the admissions process can lead to problems. Late last year, the head of admissions for China’s prestigious Renmin University was detained for selling university seats.

Last month the ministry of education tightened up the criteria for bonus points, reducing the number of sports for which extra points are awarded from 70 to 17.

Frustration with the system led in 2007 to the establishment of a revolutionary new university, the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, which initially tried admitting students without requiring them to take the gaokao. But within a few years it had capitulated to pressure from central government, using gaokao scores as the main criterion for choosing students. The reformist head of the university was also replaced by a government appointee. “The experiment at the South University of Science and Technology has failed,” says Xiong of the 21st Century Education Research Institute. “Their ideals were inevitably consumed by reality.” Overall, little of the ambitious national reform plan has been implemented. “University heads are still appointed by government and have administrative ranks, and there is still no clear path agreed to reform the gaokao,” says Xiong.

“Some Chinese people were at first very optimistic about the education reforms. But now the reality that the reforms are hard to pursue has disappointed them,” he says. “Therefore, more and more choose to send their kids to study abroad.”

So these days, Chinese parents are faced with the choice of forcing their child to endure the ordeal of the gaokao to grab one of the few seats at a top local university or saving and sacrificing even more to send their only child overseas to study. And no one is predicting that students will stop fleeing the Chinese educational system anytime soon.

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Additional reporting by Zhang Yan

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