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Today, discrimination. Tomorrow, banning.

 

Centuries ago, when the few people allowed higher education were male, prospective scholars in China would be locked one by one into small rooms to take an exam of several days’ duration. They would bring with them food and water and lamps for their stay, a bucket for their wastes, and the hope that they would remain awake. At the end of the exam period, the door would be thrown open. Finished or not, their exams would be snatched for lengthy grading. If they failed, they made their disappointed way home. If they passed, they were assured of a government post – which often meant the power to award lucrative contracts to relatives and friends, and the opportunity to pocket bribes.

These days, university degrees are still essential to gain government jobs in China, but no longer do young hopefuls have to gird themselves for several days of testing. Women, too, may attend university.

At least, if they can get in.

A recent New York Times article covers the illegal practice since 2005 of China’s universities requiring higher entrance scores for female applicants than it demands of their male competitors. Apparently, girls are outstripping boys in academic performance, an observable trend in the West, as well. China’s Education Law forbids discrimination as to gender, among other factors. Nonetheless, some universities and training programs are promoting it, and the Education Ministry has turned a blind eye.

“In July, the Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper in Guangzhou, said the practice of discriminating in admissions was ‘extremely clear’ . . . In science courses at the China University of Political Science and Law, the bar is at 632 points for women but 588 for men,” said the Times.

To counter this professional lack of guts, some students – male as well as female – have shaved their heads in protest. Out in the open, in southern China. In Beijing, which frowns on public protest, the protests have been indoors, but many people know of them.

In language schools, where women have long exceeded their male counterparts’ scores, the bar has been set artificially low for male students, especially to study Arabic. Such schools’ officials perceive that Arab nations will not deal with women from other countries, so training women in Arabic seems fruitless, despite the female applicants’ higher scores and the fact that other countries send their Arabic-speaking female nationals.

Still, women make up 50 percent of Chinese undergraduate and master’s degree candidates. With PhD’s the proportion drops to 35 percent. So a great many girls are getting degrees. But it’s inherently unfair for a woman who has studied hard to be rejected for a university place because of a “low” score that, if she were male, would be well above the acceptable level and guarantee a place.

Young Chinese women are largely silent about this. They change plans, apply elsewhere, get themselves into second-tier or alternate programs. Like women everywhere, they tend to accept.

Instead, they should shout. Now, and loudly.

Here’s the reason: while Chinese universities’ and schools’ illegal barring of several hundred, a few thousand girls from university may look unjust now, it is the thin end of the wedge for a nation that within a few years will be looking at a massive shift in the population of 18-year-olds hoping for a university place.

Because China’s one-child policy coupled with ultrasound determination of fetal sex has spawned the abortion of literally millions of female fetuses, China will soon be faced with a never-before-seen spike in the number of male students graduating from high school. Naturally, not all boys will want to attend university – some will stay in rural districts, some will join the police or armed forces, others will take over family businesses or grow their own. But enough will see a university degree as a valuable tool for their own success to make pressure on admissions offices fierce. Enough will be willing to protest and use their population clout – we’re not speaking of a spike in 80-year-olds, but in strong and aggressive young men – to influence decisions.

What then? Will Chinese universities lower the bar further for men and raise it even higher for women?

My guess is yes . . . and no.

Raising the bar for female applicants will be the logical first step. Until the numbers are so wildly out of proportion that their absurdity is evident to all.

The next step will be banning women from certain programs. The high-profile, historically male ones will go first: engineering, IT, law. Then others. Until finally, university and training programs will be closed to all women except those with tenacious family pull and the politics to back it up. Even then, chances are those few young women will be shuffled into “feminine” programs: midwifery, nutrition, language.

They would be the lucky ones. Until they’re attacked by male students for “taking” places that ought to be reserved for young men. Until they recognize that female education in China in 2033 is as dangerous as in 2012 Afghanistan.

That China’s Education Ministry has failed to discipline university programs that unjustly discriminate against female students is appalling. If China is to avert further harm, and the wastage of valuable female brains, the ministry must act now, and preemptively, to make sure the most talented and hard-working individuals fill the halls of universities, without regard to gender.

Otherwise, the Ministry doesn’t deserve the word “education”.

 

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