Understanding self-study examinations in China

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Autodidactism might be a little-known practice in many parts of the world, but it has been operating in China for almost 40 years. Established in 1981 and supported by Article 19 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, the self-study examination system has benefited millions of citizens. It is still very popular today, especially for those who missed the opportunity of formal college education, and working adults who love challenging themselves.

Through the self-study examinations system in China, Chinese citizens have the opportunity of earning a secondary or post-secondary diploma by taking and passing a number of designated examinations without setting foot in a classroom.

As you may have learned, the National College Entrance Examination (aka Gaokao) in China is considered one of the most difficult examinations in the world. Yet, according to the Interim Regulations on Higher Education Self-Study Examinations issued by the Ministry of Education of China, “Citizens of the People's Republic of China, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, race, and education, can participate in higher education self-study examinations in accordance with relevant state regulations.” Along with the low cost, perhaps the most charming part of the self-study examination in China is that there are no admission requirements to register and take the examinations and eventually earn a college diploma.

Although the self-study examination system is open to all citizens, the graduation rate has been consistently low. The statistics from the Ministry of Education in China shows that, in 2018, the number of higher education self-study examination registration reached 5,446,900 and about 487,200 or 8.94% of them successfully earned a graduation certificate. A record-high registration was recorded in 2000, with 13,691,300, however, only about 488,900 or 3.57% received a graduation certificate.

Types of Self-Study Examination Qualifications

There are three types of higher education qualifications one can earn through self-study examination, with the latter two option being the most popular: 

  • Secondary Vocational Graduation Certificate
  • Zhuanke Graduation Certificate
  • Benke Graduation Certificate

The self-study Zhuanke program is a short cycle undergraduate program in China, representing two years of lower-level undergraduate study. The Benke program represents an additional two years of upper-level undergraduate study. Those who received a Benke Graduation Certificate through self-study examination with a high GPA can apply for a bachelor’s degree certificate from the examination institution.

Qualifications earned through the self-study examination system are treated the same as the ones earned through regular higher education studies. Students with self-study undergraduate graduation certificates are also eligible for graduate admission, as long as all other admission requirements are met.

Sample Self-Study Zhuanke Graduation Certificate

Sample Self-Study Benke Graduation Certificate

Authorities of Self-Study Examination System

Three institutions and organizations are involved in the higher education self-study examination system. 

  1. The National Higher Education Self-Study Examination Steering Committee oversees the self-study examinations and is responsible for developing study plans, syllabus, textbooks, and quality control. 
  2. The provincial or municipal higher education self-study committee is responsible for choosing the list of examination majors offered locally, designating examination higher education institutions, managing examinee information, and issuing graduation certificates. 
  3. The examination higher education institutions participate in writing and assessing the examination papers, as well as co-signing the graduation certificates. This is why you will see two seals on a self-study graduation certificate.

Self-Study Examination Majors

There are a wide variety of majors and fields of study students can choose from as their self-study examination major. A 2018 regulation published by the Ministry of Education of China revealed that 101 majors are offered at the Zhuanke level and 157 majors at the Benke level. These majors cover 10 broad discipline categories, including Economics, Law, Education, Arts, Science, Engineering, Agriculture, Medical Science, Management, and Fine Arts. It’s worth mentioning that, medical-related fields such as Nursing and Pharmacy are only open to those who are already in practice in the field.

The most popular majors include Chinese Language and Literature, English, Early Childhood Education, Public Administration, Business Administration, Accounting, and Law, etc.

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Examination Schedules and Program Structures

Students are given two opportunities each year to take the examinations, currently scheduled in April and October. A student can take a maximum of four different subject exams each time. There are no limits on how many attempts a student can have on the same subject exam. Once a subject is passed, a Single Subject Certificate will be awarded. Once all required subjects are passed and the minimum required credits are earned, students can apply for a graduation certificate.

There are three program structures students can choose from: 

  • Zhuanke program
  • Stand-alone Benke program
  • Benke (including Zhuanke) program

All programs include theoretical and practical components. Practical components include lab, internship, project and/or thesis.

For the Zhuanke program (also known as the basic level program), a minimum of 15 subjects are required, including 14 theoretical subjects, and students need to earn at least 70 credits in order to receive a graduation certificate.

The stand-alone Benke program is designed for those with a Zhuanke graduation certificate, either through regular higher education study or self-study. A minimum of 10 theoretical subjects and 70 credits are required for this program.

Finally, the Benke (including Zhuanke) program is divided into two parts; the basic level (Zhuanke part) and the advanced level (Benke part). Students need to pass at least 20 theoretical subjects and accumulate no less than 125 credits, among which a minimum of 70 credits and 12 theoretical subjects are needed to pass the basic level. For the Benke (including Zhuanke) program, students can take both the basic level and advanced level subject exams simultaneously, and not in normal progressing order. However, students must obtain a Zhuanke graduation certificate before applying for a Benke graduation certificate.


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Jade Jiang Rieger is a Research & Knowledge Management Evaluator and has been with ECE since 2012. She specializes in education in East and South East Asia, Anglophone Africa, and Latin America. 



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