China will take steps to make its university entrance exams fairer this year by having a single national body set most of the papers, amid criticisms that varying quality had denied Chinese students a level playing field in the past.
While acknowledging concerns that a standardised test raised the risk of exam fraud, Education Minister Yuan Guiren said the biggest problem with the notoriously stressful exam, called the gaokao, was the "differing quality" of the questions.
"After every gaokao, there would be comparisons about which province had the best questions. If you had just one paper, there would be no need for such comparisons," he told reporters yesterday at a press conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China's Parliament.
But he added that cost reduction was another reason for unifying the exam setting.
Apart from five areas - the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces - the remaining 26 provinces and regions will have the gruelling two- day exam set by a national examination body this year, he revealed.
This is sharply down from the 16 that set their own exam papers in 2014, when gaokao reform was first announced. Then, plans to scrap streaming were among other reforms unveiled to lower the burden of the exam, make university admissions fairer and produce better- skilled workers in the long term.
Mr Yuan emphasised that the national centre will set different versions of the gaokao so as to cater to the varying pace of reforms in different provinces, in areas like syllabus and teaching materials.
But whether all provinces will eventually have their exams fall under the purview of the centre and use just one exam script remains to be seen, Mr Yuan said.
"Let's see how this reform plays out first," he added. "Education encompasses a long cycle. A set of teaching materials lasts from primary school all the way till high school before it can be changed... This cycle can be 10, or even 20 years."
Experts mostly welcomed the reform for levelling the playing field and being a fairer gauge of academic standing. They said a more uniform test will allow children of migrant workers to sit the exam where they live, instead of travelling home.
"Some gaokao questions can be easier, while others are more difficult, but there is only one college admissions system so if you get a poor score, it affects your chances of going to a good university and, in turn, possibly even your job prospects," said Renmin University education expert Cheng Fangping.