Although the gaokao college entrance examination has been in place for 40 years and the university acceptance rate reached 80 percent in 2016, the long-held consensus that gaokao, which is seen as a fair test for selecting talents from all backgrounds, promotes social mobility has been called into question recently, reports Caixin.

Most experts believe that the 1977–99 period was gaokao’s heyday in terms of effectiveness in promoting social mobility, says Caixin. The resumption of gaokao in 1977 ‘opened the valve’ for social mobility, absorbing previously disillusioned youngsters from all walks of life and all corners of China, says Xu Zhangrun 许章润 Tsinghua University Law School professor. In the first 20 years following the resumption of gaokao, the percentage of rural students enrolled at Peking University, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, hovered between 20 and 40 percent. Since then, the rural enrolment rate has decreased, dropping down to 10-15 percent between 2000 and 2005, and dropping again to 10 percent around 2011, according to Liu Yunshan 刘云杉 Peking University School of Education professor. Gaokao’s value in advancing social mobility is diminishing fast, argues Liu. Some experts believe gaokao’s importance is overstated, arguing factors like Compulsory Education Law of 1986 also made important contributions to advancing education and social mobility.

Educational inequality in primary and secondary schools due to the urban–rural divide is what really hobbles social mobility, says Li Qiang 李强 Tsinghua University School of Social Sciences dean. The real divergence in education and social mobility starts not from gaokao, but primary and secondary education, says Liang Cheng 梁晨 education expert, adding that the continuous flow of top students and high-quality teaching staff from less developed regions to big cities and provincial capitals, as well as the substandard facilities and teachers in rural areas, prevents many rural students from even reaching the gaokao. It also puts those who have reached that level in an academically disadvantageous position compared to their urban counterparts, adds Liang.

Students who do well on the gaokao are increasingly drawn from a fixed pool of secondary schools across the country, according to Li Chunling 李春玲 Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Sociology researcher, pointing out that the percentage of Peking University students admitted from 84 prestigious secondary schools increased from 35 to 44 percent during the 2005–9 period. Rural students accounted for just one-eighth of the average student population in these schools, Li adds. More than half of the students finishing compulsory education do not go on to high school, according to a survey of 25,000 rural students in four provinces by Scott Rozelle Stanford University professor. The intergenerational urban–rural divide sends urban and rural children down an increasingly divergent road for education and social mobility long before the gaokao, says Li.