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China’s education reform bubble bursts

  • Source: Global Times
  • [11:17 June 25 2009]
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Illustration: Liu Rui

By Zheng Yongnian

As millions of college graduates — including lots with master’s degrees and PhDs — become unemployed, the bubble of China’s higher education is bursting.

It’s not news that college students can’t find jobs. This happens in all countries, but not on as large a scale as in China.

China’s educational system has made great strides, but at the same time has created problems that will be hard to solve in the foreseeable future.

The problem isn’t simply unemployment among college students. The crisis behind this phenomenon is what’s more disconcerting.

Since the mid-1990s, China’s higher education has gone through major and minor reforms: the large-scale upgrade of colleges to universities; the merging of universities; mass campus building; and finally unrestrained enrollment expansion. Reformers have shown unprecedented entrepreneurship.

It’s generally agreed that China’s educational system needs reforms. It’s also accepted that we should build infrastructure and expand our reach to benefit more people and produce more educated workers for the country.

But unfortunately the result of the reforms falls short of people’s expectations.
The reforms thus far have resulted in the accelerated concentration of resources toward a few. More and more poor people can’t afford to send their kids to school.

China is trying painstakingly to meet international standards but its educational research is actually moving farther away from international levels.

Aside from copying the West, China has no educational innovation at all. For example, China’s educational assessment system is a mix of ideas borrowed from the rest of the world.

Why has reform failed? It’s because the reformers in China are not experts on education.
China’s educational reform is led by political and business entrepreneurs, as well as some in the education sector with strong business or political ambitions.

China’s higher education couldn’t have developed so rapidly if not for entrepreneurship.

A typical example of the political and business interest joining hands is the college towns that mushroomed all over provinces a few years ago. Political players provide policies while businesspeople profit from land grabbing.

Chinese universities couldn’t have received huge loans from banks if not for these two players.

But universities end up with tens of billions in debt. They would already have gone broke in any other country. Here, governments at all levels are keeping them alive. Therefore, the burdens transfer from universities to governments, and eventually to society.

Students coming out of this educational system are not useful to society, because the reform isn’t targeted at the needs of China’s economic and social development. As a result, companies are in need of skilled workers and at the same time graduates end up jobless.

The extensive expansion of enrollment is also unsustainable. Most people are aware of the low quality of China’s higher education.

For years, everyone from government officials to wealthy families has been sending their children overseas, in the hope that they can learn something useful.

This year some senior high school students in Chongqing refused to take the college entrance exam, which in a way is a protest against the futility of college education.

To a large extent, migrant workers are more useful than many college graduates. At least they are not as picky as the college students.

With all that money spent on a diploma, the college students can’t find better jobs than the uneducated. That’s a real tragedy.

Schools should foster useful skills, and society and the government ought to invest more in education. But since China’s colleges can’t accomplish this, the universities, government and society are stuck in a vicious cycle.