College Hopefuls in China Decline National Exam, Head Overseas Instead

June 9, 2014 Updated: June 9, 2014

Nearly 9.4 million high school seniors over the weekend took the annual national college entrance exams, the most important test in China, and one that sets the course of life for many. An increasing number of Chinese students, however, have chosen not to take the exam—some electing to study abroad instead, where they hope for a better, or at least more holistic, education. Close to a million high school seniors declined to take the exam this year, official reports say. 

Heavy security was dispatched throughout the country on Saturday and Sunday, with armed police guarding school entrances and major streets. Photographs online show police with guns (uncommon in China), and others wearing helmets and vests.

The number of students attending the exam this year increased by 3 percent, or 270,000 people, for the first time after five years of decline. Among them, 170,000 are students from rural areas, according to a research report by China Education Online, a website that publishes official information about exams, admissions, and careers.

The report says nearly a million high school seniors gave up the college entrance exam this year, with many electing instead to study abroad, and others directly finding a job.

Not taking the college entrance exam seems more pronounced in large cities. Shanghai has 52,000 students taking the exam this year, less than half of the number in 2006. Beijing has 70,000 taking it, more than 2,000 less than last year, and a decline for the eighth year straight. In Henan Province 34,000 fewer students took the exam this year than last. 

Among those that have gone abroad are some of the best and brightest, Chinese academics say. “It impacts the quality of students for top universities like Peking University and Tsinghua University,” said Chu Zhaohui, researcher at the National Institute of Education Science, in an interview with China National Radio

“Their student source quality is dropping, because the good students and students with better family financial ability all study abroad,” he said. 

China had 413,900 students abroad in 2013, an increase of nearly 4 percent over 2012, and part of a decade-long trend, according to China’s Ministry of Education. By 2013, China had over three million people studying abroad, the most in the world. 

United States is one of the most popular destinations. Last year 93,768 Chinese students went to the United States for undergraduate study, and 103,427 for graduate study. 

Students in China often see study abroad as more educationally sound, and prestigious.

Sound of Hope radio interviewed Mr. Li, a college student in Guangxi Province, who said: “Education abroad is certainly better than China. High official leaders’ children are all studying abroad, which proves it.” Mr. Li said that his university lecturers in China closely followed the textbooks, something he could have done himself.

He added: “If I had money, I’d certainly emigrate. In China, the food is not safe, the environment is not safe, and nothing is safe.”