Posts by Xiaoran Yu

Lowering Education Standards for Ethnic Minorities: Rethinking Preferential Policy in China

In China, the month of June means so much for high school students. As the most well known high-stakes exam in China, an annual National College Entrance Examination (NCEE) takes place during three executive days in June. As this year’s university entrance examinations are approaching, the question of “is it fair for ethnic minority students to get extra points?” stirs a heated debate, like it always did in the past. As a Han ethnicity student, I took NCEE in 2006. It was a long time ago, but I still remember how I felt when discussing the preferential policy with my Han friends: I don’t like the policy because it is unfair to me, but I have no choice. Looking back today, I have to admit that this preferential policy still sounds controversial to me.

According to Chinese education policy, school entrance scores can be lowered for ethnic minorities. Translated into practice, the policy means ethnic minority students get an extra 10/20 points in the NCEE, which amounts to about 1.5% /3% of the total points of NCEE (usually 750 points). According to the central government, this policy is aimed at educational equity nationwide: in minority-populated areas, students may be disadvantaged due to historical, geographical, and economical reasons. Given such factors as low quality of teaching force and lack of resources in minority-populated areas, as well as maintaining solidarity among ethnic groups as the rationale, the Chinese government put forward the preferential policy. Although the starting point of the policy is to solve the problem of inequality, the theme of national solidarity stands out. Obviously, this policy has a hidden political agenda. “Choosing between ethnic and Chinese citizenship” is an identity struggle among minority groups. With the adoption of the policy, minorities feel they are less disadvantaged by NCEE, which may lead to a sense of belonging and loyalty to their Chinese citizenship.


Most criticism toward the policy arises in the developed areas where minority students enjoy as good education as Han majority, other than in ethnic autonomous regions where Han students study in same schools as minority students. In the former case, both Han students and minority students enjoy educational resources. In the latter case, minority students in backward areas lack resources, so do Han people who live in those areas. The Han children attend the same schools as minority students. They cannot afford books, do not have access to tutoring, nor do they have high-qualified teachers in class. The evidence proves that the policy itself is outdated. When it was approved in 1987, there were not so many minority students studying in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Nowadays, there are many ethnic minority students studying in developed areas and enjoy the same resources as their Han counterparts. Likewise, there are great economic development im ethnic autonomous areas. In this context, it is no wonder why Han students and parents feel angry. I would like to call this phenomenon “reverse-ethnic discrimination”: in Chinese society in general, Han is the dominant group that assumes superiority and enjoys benefits that ethnic minorities do not have. NCEE is a reverse situation because Han students are subject to a position where minority students benefit while the majority students do not. This reverse-ethnic discrimination is the result of government’s political manipulation—for the purpose of national solidarity.

As I mentioned earlier, the preferential policy is problematic in itself. It is problematic also because of its implementation. Each year there are reports suggesting that some parents change their child ethnicity from Han to a minority group, so that their child could get an extra 10 points in NCEE. Preferential policy for minority students causes corruption, which is detrimental to the educational system. A metaphor NCEE is “Policeman”, which means students have to do whatever NCEE tells them to. Another widespread metaphor is “bridge”: Millions of students swarm to a bridge, i.e. NCEE, and only a handful of them can arrive at the other side of the river, i.e. college. My question is: is high-stakes testing the root of all the problems? If we evaluate a student on many criteria, NCEE being one of them, will the situation be different?


In terms of solution, I agree with many others: the preferential policy shall continue on. However, there should be better regulations. Some people suggest that allocation of university enrollments should be changed: offering extra points to students from areas of poor economic development and poor educational quality. However, this suggestion cannot meet the country’s political agenda. To my mind, the challenge for the country is how to maintain national solidarity, while achieving educational equity.

Privatizing Public Schools and Publicizing Private Schools

I was amazed to learn that a girl studying business at Lehigh named Susan is from the same city in China as I am. Yesterday she invited me to lunch, so we had a good chat about our life experiences. I am seven years older than her. It turned out that we attended the same primary school. Later on, while I attended a middle school nearby, she attended a private school. She was the first person whom I know to attend a private school in my hometown. Our conversation helped me reflect on private education in China.


Let’s start with the private schools in the city I was born and raised up. I grew up in a medium sized city in eastern China. I attended public schools I was assigned to. By the time I graduated from primary school, there was only one private school, called New Era, in the city. It was a newly established private middle school. In the following years, more private schools were established at various levels. According to Susan, when she graduated from primary school, she had a couple of choices. She could either attend a public middle school, just as I did, or attend one of the private schools. She finally chose a newly established middle school named Bridge near her home. What is interesting about both the New Era and Bridge schools is their connections to by public middle schools. Most of the teachers worked in the mother public schools prior to the establishment of the private schools. New Era and Bridge charged more fees than public schools and generated great profit each year; in return, the mother schools assigned their best teachers, administrators, resources, and facilities to the private schools. These public funded and public run private schools became the first choice for many parents and, at the same time, the target of public criticism.


Theoretically, each primary school graduate is assigned to a certain middle school based on geographical proximity. The student’s parents can waive attendance by demonstrating their child will attend another private or public middle school. If parents want to choose another public school than the one their child is assigned to, they have to pay an extra amount of money and bride school officials. Parents also have the choice of private schools. Let’s take New Era, for example. Its mother school Brooks used to be one of the best middle schools before any private schools appeared in the city. Later, it established the affiliated private school, New Era, which was still run by the mother school. New Ear has two ways to attract students. The first way is by publicizing and advertizing the desirable educational quality of New Era among all of the students assigned to Brooks. Because Brooks assigns most of its high quality teachers to private schools, parents who can afford the high tuition usually choose to send their children to New Era instead of Brooks. If the parents cannot afford the high tuition or prefer public education, their children stay in Brooks. Many parents who cannot afford to send their children to New Era complain about the poor teacher quality in the mother school. The second way that New Era recruits its students is by advertizing to the broader community. Anyone who is interested is eligible to apply. Nowadays, New Era became one of the best middle schools in the city, while its mother school’s reputation dropped because its students’ performance in high school entrance exams has been on decrease.


China is not immune to the process of globalization. Chinese government rides on two competing forces of socialism and global capitalism. With socialism at its foundation, the government guarantees that public schools are predominant in number. As a result of global capitalism, private schools have gained momentum (Mok, 2005). The private sector is encouraged by policy because private schools are considered a driving force of enhancing educational quality in the country overall. Meanwhile, public schools have been privatized to make profit. Currently, there is inequality within public schools due to the embedded private sector. To my mind, public schools should offer equal resources to all enrolled students. In the wave of neoliberal market economy, how can the Chinese school system, especially in the public sector, maintain a place where all students benefit?


Mok, K. H. (2005). Riding over socialism and global capitalism: Changing education governance and social policy paradigms in post-Mao China. Comparative Education, 41, 217-242.

Bilingual Education in Tibet: Promises and Problems

Education equity has become a hot topic worldwide. As a country consisting of Han majority and 55 minorities, China has made efforts to ensure education equity between the Han majority and the ethnic minorities. China’s minority education gained momentum since 1980s. In Tibet, for example, dropout rate decreased, literacy rate increased, and more Tibetan students went to colleges. As a part of minority education, bilingual education policy for minority students has been in effect for decades. I have been curious about what bilingual education looks like in Tibetan-speaking areas. My conversations with a friend made me reflect on this issue again.


At a friend’s party I met a guy. He was a third year Ph.D. student studying engineering in the United States. I was so exited when I learned that he was from rural Tibet. He was the first person I know who was born and raised in a Tibetan ethnic autonomous region. I had millions of questions to ask him. When the topic came to education, to my surprise he did not talk about of the lack of facilities or poor teacher quality. Instead, the first issue he brought up was how bilingual education in his village hindered the potential of the kids.

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“In my village, bilingual education is not as glorious as one usually imagines”, he said, “Tibetan is the medium of instruction in primary schools, but all of a sudden, the language of instruction switches to Chinese when it comes to middle school. It caused a lot of problems for me”. According to him, both of his parents were Tibetans, so neither of them could help him learn Chinese. He also considered language as part of culture. “I really appreciate my culture. Tibetan identity and language means a lot to me. I cannot throw them away. As I know, some of my friends chose to attend schools in India where we can use Tibetan throughout schooling”.


My friend’s case is not uncommon in ethnic autonomous areas. For example, the program for educational development of Qinghai (2010-2010) promulgates bilingual education—Chinese is the main and instructional language, and Tibetan a supplementary language. However, people have different notions about the relationship between the Chinese language and the Tibetan language teaching in school. The sudden switch from minority language to Chinese causes much problem for minority students. Although in lower grades Chinese is taught as a second language, many minority students do not have the Chinese proficiency to attend Chinese-language-only schools. The same situation is in Tibet. Although most primary schools still use Tibetan as a medium of instruction, Chinese is the language of secondary school and the ticket to non-farm sector employment. This causes high dropouts rates in junior secondary school, which decreases the learning potential of many students (Postiglione, 2008).


Chinese policy attempts to popularize Chinese and minority language. There was a significant commitment to minority language maintenance and bilingual education in China’s language laws from 1905 to 2005 (Ross, 2006). However, problems exist. Even though bilingualism promotes Chinese as well as minority languages, the focus is always Chinese. In addition, although minorities are granted equal status with the Han language by law, Chinese is the official language that has legitimacy. Furthermore, reward mechanisms favor Han speakers, because it is easy for Han speakers to find better education and lucrative jobs. For example, most Chinese universities have Chinese language exams for minority students.


Like my friend said, many Tibetans believe that their indigenous language should be the medium of instruction as Tibetan language is integral to Tibetan culture. As a result, as my friend witnessed, many Tibetan families send their children to India where Tibetan can be used as a medium of instruction. Contrary to indigenous people’s beliefs, policymakers believe in their own cultural superiority, which includes their language. Bilingualism has become uni-dimensional, instead of multi-dimensional. That is, minorities adjust to the majority by learning mandarin Chinese. The other way around, there is no learning of minority languages on the part of Han majority. It seems to me that the minority education policy tries to help the minorities, to patronize them. Policymakers think there is nothing for the minority groups to give back in terms of education—what policy does is help the minorities. With such a patronizing attitude, I don’t think educational equity can be achieved.


Right now I think the minority policy aims to serve Han people in Tibet. Most officials in Tibet are Han. If children of Tibetan officials learn good Chinese, they get the ticket to a bright future, such as government jobs. Nevertheless, for Tibetan students, Chinese is not as important as Tibetan language. Thus I think the current bilingual policy favors just one group instead of both. Bilingual education policy in China has produced positive educational results, as proved by many educators, but to my mind, there is still room of improvement.



Nima, B. (2001). Problems related to bilingual education in Tibet. Chinese Education and Society, 34, 91-102.


Postiglione, G. A. (2008). Making Tibetans in China: the Educational challenges of harmonious multiculturalism. Educational Review, 60, 1-20.


Ross, H. (2006). Where and who are the world’s illiterates: China. UNESCO Global Monitoring Report China Country Study (June 20), 65 pages