In the Oscar-nominated movie The Blind Side, a series of US college football coaches visit the home of star player Michael Oher. They compete to lure him with ever more attractive admission offers.
In China, the country’s universities are just as competitive, although their admission priorities are less concerned with chasing sports prospects than attracting super-smart students – typically the geniuses whose exam scores rank top in each province.
This selection process made the news this week thanks to a CCTV report in which Fudan University alleged foul play. The highly regarded Shanghai university had given guaranteed places to such candidates, only to discover that the students had been enticed to go elsewhere by rivals calling up, pretending to be from Fudan, and saying their places had been cancelled.
The accusations began with a ‘star’ student from Shanxi province, who is said to have switched to Jiaotong University in Shanghai. Top candidates were then lost from Yunnan and Guangdong too. Fudan’s admissions office then fought a rearguard action, with its 28 regional enrollment groups calling those who’d been offered guaranteed places and informing them to beware of the devious practice.
Skulduggery may also have been employed by Beijing’s two top universities (Tsinghua and Peking) against each other reckons Chengdu Business Daily. ‘Champion candidates’ in Sichuan were rumoured to have received false information in June, indicating problems with their applications, and encouraging them to switch.
The Chinese media has likened the annual university enrollment process to a ‘spy game’, saying the big universities divide the country up into ‘theatres of war’. Each gets a recruitment team with a mission to spread propaganda, refute rumours and poach the 100 or so best students nationwide in each academic discipline (a genuinely elite group, given that 9 million apply for university each year).
Fudan’s professor of history Feng Wei has become something of an internet celebrity thanks to his weibo revelations on how the practice works (he heads an enrollment group for Hubei province). For instance, his blog details how he ‘lost’ Gao Ming in Yichang. After guaranteeing Gao a place, the top-ranked science student was subsequently lured to Peking University. When Feng called Gao’s father to complain, the parent cried out: “I cannot stand this, I have collapsed”. It turned out that district officials had persuaded Gao to switch with round-the-clock lobbying.
Why? Guangzhou Daily points out that “admission to Peking (also known as Beida) or Tsinghua University is a great achievement for both the local government and teachers.” Economic incentives are an added motivation. One small county in Chongqing rewards teachers Rmb80,000 for every student that gets into Peking or Tsinghua.
Education is revered in Chinese culture but the public’s opinion of educators themselves is sinking. Tsinghua’s admissions director Yu Han concedes: “The goal of universities is to enroll the high-scoring students, and this is sometimes at the expense of losing teachers’ dignity, principles and conscience.”
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