The strategic dimension of higher education

Having studiously avoided all entrance examinations for the past 25 years, I was struck last week when my colleagues showed me a few questions from the Gaokao, China’s annual national college entrance exams. Now, I’m familiar with the debate over the Gaokao and its flaws, especially over whether it selects for merit as is claimed, but I was not prepared for what I saw in the question paper.

A report in this newspaper by Anish Kumar (“Is Gaokao world’s toughest exam? 10 questions from China’s school test.” July 10th, 2018) has many examples, but here’s one to give you a sense of what the equivalent of Indian 12th grade students must answer: “Between June and August, a cruise ship travels from Fujian province to Venice, via Mumbai, as part of Xi’s 21st century maritime silk road strategy. Which of the following would it experience on the way?” Here’s another ”Write an essay on how Thomas Edison would react to the mobile phone if he visited the 21st century.”

I saw a question in the mathematics paper required a basic arithmetic, but needed the student to apply the mind to figure out how to approach it. In addition to Chinese and Mathematics, students must take a foreign language (English, Russian, Japanese or French) and either science or humanities. Many of the questions require reasoning and application, not a mere rehearsal of what was in the syllabus.

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