Protests against changes to China’s university admission system spread to a fourth province on Monday as authorities scrambled to contain growing anger over one of the most important issues for parents in the country’s emerging middle class — their children’s access to higher education.

According to a post on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, parents gathered in Baoding, Hebei province, to demand that the education ministry scrap plans to reduce the number of places reserved for local applicants. The post showed pictures of parents outside the local government’s education bureau demanding “fairness”.

This followed similar protests by hundreds of parents in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, at the weekend. Over recent weeks, parents have also taken to the streets of cities in Hubei and Jiangsu provinces.

Like their state-run counterparts in the US, Chinese universities reserve a certain percentage of places for students from their home province, which are allocated through a gruelling annual exam known as the gaokao. In an effort to increase access for non-local students, the education ministry ordered universities in many of China’s most populous provinces to reduce such quotas.

The changes sparked an immediate backlash from parents whose children would be disadvantaged by the reform.

Reflecting the sensitivity of the issue, internet censors have taken down social media postings and online discussions about the reforms and ensuing protests. But some appeals are slipping through their net. One posting on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, called on parents in southern Hunan province to join a protest scheduled for Tuesday.

In an open letter to the State Council, parents in Henan also complained about alleged discrimination for places at the country’s most sought-after universities, such as prestigious Peking University in Beijing. According to the letter, first reported by the South China Morning Post, Peking University accepted only one out of every 8,900 Henan applicants in 2013, compared with one out of every 325 applicants from Beijing.

The complaint was echoed on Monday by parents who protested in Baoding, an industrial city a few hours’ drive from the capital. They said the imbalance was particularly unfair given the central government’s effort to merge Hebei, Beijing and a third city, Tianjin, into an integrated region with 110m people.

“Parents in Baoding are making their voices heard,” the parents said, according to the Weibo post. “You talk about integration with [Beijing and Tianjin], so why are you so cruel to Hebei students.”

“When you are hungry, you ship our food to Beijing,” another parent in Hunan said. “When you are thirsty, you transfer our water to Beijing. Why won’t you allow our children to study in Beijing?”

A spokesperson for the education ministry could not be reached for comment.

In response to the complaints, a municipal education bureau in Henan argued that local students “will benefit from the adjusted college entrance exam programme”.

“We hope parents will not believe online rumours,” the statement by the Puyang government added. “Everyone cares about fair education and we will take the issue to our superiors.”

 

By TOM MITCHELL, Financial Times, 5:06am EST