Since the opening up of China, the government attached great importance to the education system and directed this focus towards educating skilled personnel and creating the scientific knowledge China needed for its economic development. Besides institutional reform, public spending on education increased considerably and grew by double digits for a long time. In 2012, government spending on education reached the official target of four percent of the GDP for the first time and has remained above that figure since. At the same time, per capita expenditure of Chinese households on education also increased substantially, which reflects the great importance Chinese parents attach to the education of their children.
In mainland China, the Compulsory Education Law stipulates nine years of government funded compulsory school attendance, which includes six years of primary school and three years of junior high school. After graduating from junior high school, students can choose between senior high school and secondary vocational schooling. Senior high school students also need to choose between a social science or natural science orientation. This in turn affects the test categories students later take during the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, also called Gaokao.
The Gaokao is held annually in China and is an academic examination not unlike the SAT's in the United States. It is considered the single most important exam in a student's entire life as it decides not only general university admission but also which university the student can enroll at. As the number of institutes of higher education has increased tremendously over the years, today even low scored students can attend university if their parents are willing to pay for tuition fees. Accordingly, general enrollment in tertiary education grew to more than 54 percent of the respective age cohorts in 2020.
Despite the general improvement of the educational system in China, deep rooted regional differences are one of its major characteristics. This is mainly the result of China's decision to allocate education spending according to excellence and to develop a certain group of institutions as world class within a short period of time. This is not only true for universities, but also for high schools and other educational institutions. Today, scores of highly trained graduates leave Chinese institutions in the large cities every year and their educational level will further improve in the future. However, some elite schools in Beijing and Shanghai are not representative for the whole of the country and the average school in the countryside lags way behind the standards of the urban centers.