Chinese higher education fails the test
By Robert Hartmann

HONG KONG - Opinion polls in China in the past year have generally listed the country's higher education as one of the three major targets of growing public discontent, with the other two being health care and housing.

As such, the current higher-education system is potentially a major factor of social instability. Therefore, to implement President Hu Jintao's blueprint for building a "harmonious society", the Chinese government must make efforts to deal with
the crisis facing higher education.

In China, where learning used to be highly esteemed because of the Confucian tradition, university graduates were once regarded as "heaven's favored ones" who would never worry about employment. But in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for university graduates to find jobs. This year, quite a number of university graduates have taken jobs as housemaids, security guards or unpaid trainees. Even so, half of the more than 4 million graduates remained jobless months after leaving school.

In light of this, Ministry of Education officials in charge of student affairs have made a public appeal that university graduates should be prepared to compete with "ordinary laborers" in the job market, which raises the question: If a university graduate is like an "ordinary laborer", what is China's higher education for?

It is not that higher education is so popular in China nowadays that every ordinary laborer holds a degree. On the contrary, only a small proportion of high-school graduates are lucky enough to be admitted by universities. Meanwhile, many surveys have pointed out the acute shortage of talent in China.

For example, a survey released by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai early last month said a skills shortage has emerged as the top challenge for US companies operating in China. Charles Mo, who heads human resources at the AmCham Shanghai, said the skills shortage had, for the first time in five years, overtaken bureaucracy as the No 1 headache for US companies in China. "The vast majority of US companies said their China operations were suffering from challenges in recruiting capable Chinese managers and retaining them," Mo said.

An event last summer sparked further public controversy over the policy of admitting university students solely according to their scores in the national entrance examination. Normally, high-school graduates with the best scores in the entrance exam are ensured admittance by such top schools as Peking University and Tsinghua University.

But this year, universities in Hong Kong began to open their doors wide to admit students from mainland China, to lure talent as well as funds. All Hong Kong schools offered very attractive scholarships for mainland students with top scores in the entrance exam. However, during admission interviews, the University of Hong Kong rejected 11 such candidates who otherwise could have been unconditionally admitted by Peking University or Tsinghua University. The reason: they knew very little apart from what they had memorized for the entrance exam.

Critics have therefore concluded that the whole of China's higher-education system is problematic, from students' admission, to their education, to their graduation. In the final analysis, critics say, all problems stem from an internal contradiction within the current higher-education system itself: part of its operation still strictly follows government planning while another part now is market-oriented.

The government still decides the number of students to be admitted, imposes a unified entrance exam, and determines what subjects a university may teach. But the government no longer guarantees employment of graduates, who have to compete for jobs in the market. As with the failure of the planned economy, the government's plans for education, more often than not, do not meet the demands of the job market.

Furthermore, reluctant to increase its financial contribution to education, the Chinese government set a policy to "industrialize" or "commercialize" education in recent years, encouraging schools to become like profit-oriented enterprises. So to increase its income, a school has to either recruit more students or increase tuition or, more often, both. Quality of education is neglected.

Because of this internal contradiction, China's higher-education system now faces several serious problems.

The entrance-exam problem. The strict unified exam has been severely blamed by many in education circles for being only good at enrolling bookworms and creating inequality and injustice.

To be successful in passing the entrance exam, youngsters have to bury themselves in book stacks, completely divorced from social reality, and strive with all their might to score more points by coming closer to the "standard answers". More often than not, the best performers in such exams cannot stand up to an oral test, as in the University of Hong Kong case.

The employment problem. While higher-education enrollment still follows the mode of "planned economy", the employment end has been linked to a free-market economy. The two are obviously incompatible. Thus a big social problem arises that plagues university graduates with the difficulty of finding jobs.

In 2005, of a total of 4 million graduates, only about 2 millions have succeeded in getting job contracts. Even those lucky ones who got jobs were far from satisfied: some have had to work as domestic helpers or even door-keepers at a monthly salary of only 800 yuan (about US$100). In 2003, starting monthly salaries for university graduates ranged between 2,500 and 3,000 yuan. Last year, the median dropped to about 1,000 yuan.

The blame for this employment crisis seems to rest on the explosive over-enrollment of students, with many in majors that are not demanded in the market. This both degrades the quality of higher education, given the limitation of resources, and goes out of balance with the tempo of the country's current economic development.

The quality problem. If universities can be regarded as "factories", then graduates are their "products". Generally speaking, the target of university education is to produce either specialists or all-around persons with a wider background of knowledge and possessing deeper intelligence reserves as required by the society. The former task used to be taken up by the specialist institutes, and the latter by the so-called comprehensive universities.

In China currently, however, the specialist institutes produce students without adequate and updated specialist knowledge, while the "all-arounds" lack a wide enough outlook. For example, the electronic teaching materials of some Shanghai universities were found to be about 10 years behind the level of those used in Hong Kong. Students versed in both science and art are rarities nowadays.

Moreover, what the students learn in universities often cannot meet the needs of the developing industries. An example of this is the technical people needed in developing online-game industries, which have to get their human resources from non-official schools.
The financial problem. Under the trend of education "industrialization", annual university tuition fees have skyrocketed to between 5,200 and 8,000 yuan per student, about 20 times what they were 10 years ago. How can low- or even medium-wage families afford such high fees? Where is the equality of the right of education? Is this situation because the Chinese government has no money or because of its reluctance to invest more?

China is known to possess ample foreign-currency reserves, but statistics show that government investment in education amounts to only 3.3% of gross domestic product, considerably lower than the global average of 4.2%. It was reported that in 2003 the fees collected by the universities amounted to 40 billion yuan and yet the total government investment was only 70 billion yuan.

All these problems consist in an overall crisis facing the higher-education system due to its irrational structure.

To facilitate genuine progress, the government needs to launch a thorough restructuring of the system to relax its unnecessary controls on the universities, to increase its financial input, and to allow schools to pilot their own reforms.

Some schools have already begun to make moves for a change. Dissatisfied with the conventional admission of students solely by their scores in the entrance exam, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiaotong University took the lead to introduce admission interviews.

Now many educators in China also advocate that the government give up its strict planning for higher education, giving universities full autonomy to decide how to enroll their students and what subjects to teach. In this way, the schools will have to make their "products" more in line with market demands.

Whether such proposals are feasible for China is debatable. But one thing is certain: a restructuring of the higher-education system is inevitable if the acute problems are to be tackled to ease growing public anger, removing a potential threat to social harmony. With Hu's idea of building a "harmonious society" to be endorsed at the Chinese Communist Party's 17th National Congress next year, there is growing hope that a restructuring of the higher-education system will soon be under way.

Robert Hartmann is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist.

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