China’s Problematic Education System

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Since the mid-1990s, China has gone through major reforms in its education system. New campuses were built on a large scale, and many colleges were upgraded and merged with universities. College enrollments expanded dramatically. In 2009, about 23 million students were enrolled in China’s colleges and universities, compared to merely 6.4 million in 1998.

However, the quality of the education has deteriorated. Many professors spent the bulk of their time making money – charging steep consulting fees to businesses or for private tutoring. Lian Fang, a professor at Zhejiang Art Institute, told me that he charged 100,000 yuan ($15,000) to design packages and advertisements for a company that sold cookies and fruit juice products. Professor Lian’s salary was about 7,000 yuan ($1,030) a month. His wife, a music teacher, also made a handsome income by giving private piano lessons. As Harvard mathematician Yau Shing-tung noted, despite the increased levels of funding and much-improved facilities in China’s higher education institutions, the standards of research and quality of education in China have continued to deteriorate.

Most importantly, China’s schools and universities have not adopted a model that encourages creativity and innovation. Students take notes and memorize what teachers and professors say without questioning or independent thinking. As a result, many Chinese college graduates are not well suited for a workplace that requires plenty of individual initiative, critical thinking, and the ability to challenge established authority.

In addition, education has become very expensive. Before 1996, the state provided free college education. Since then, college education has been commercialized. College tuition has soared 25 times over the past 15 years. If living expenses are included, the average cost for a college student is about 40,000 yuan ($5,800) per year. The annual per capita income for rural Chinese, however, is less than 3,000 yuan ($460). Many rural youths simply cannot afford a college education.

For those who go to college, the future does not necessarily look any rosier. In recent years, more than one million college graduates cannot find jobs, including many with master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. Liu Xueshan, a civil engineer in Chongqing, told me that when he graduated from college six years before, it was very easy for him to find a job that paid about 3,000 yuan ($450) per month. Now, college graduates are taking jobs with monthly salaries as low as 1,000 yuan ($150), about the same amount that rural migrants earn without a college education.

The failure of China’s education reform has cast a long shadow on the quality of the life of the new middle class. Many upper middle class families began to send their children to study overseas, in the hope of securing a better future for them. For lower middle class families, their chances for moving up may be hindered. The implications can be multifold. As a Chinese saying says, “It takes ten years to grow a tree, but it takes a hundred years to grow a person.”

(For more details, please see my forthcoming book The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World’s Largest Middle Class.)

9 thoughts on “China’s Problematic Education System

  1. I’m enjoying your writing, but 6,430 college students in all of China in 1998? This must be a mistake… maybe 6,430,000?

  2. Hi Helen,

    I have been in Asia Pacific for 6 years providing manufatcuring support (education) to production facilities and do find that the graduates are lacking cross fuctional skills?

    My observation is that many have good education at a single subject but not an understanding on the related topics.

    Do you know the true rate of univeristy graduates actually getting jobs in there educated field of expertise?

  3. This is a good article! I was amazed about the truth in it! I want to continue my studies (Master) in China (I’m from Romania) but now I don’t know what to say …:( I’m scared about the situation…:(

  4. rote-memorization is for the 15th. century.
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