Curious Capitalist

China: Just as Desperate for Education Reform as the U.S.

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This article is the fourth in Foroohar’s series on Chinese business and economic developments and their effects on the global economy; find the rest of the series here.

While Americans often worry that hordes of Chinese engineers will eat their economic lunch, the Chinese look to the U.S. for the model of how to educate a 21st century workforce. This realization hit me during a recent trip to China, on which I kept hearing about how broken the Chinese educational model was, and how desperately it needed to be reformed in order for the country to move up the economic food chain and create the millions of new jobs required to avoid higher unemployment and the social unrest that often comes with it.

I saw the problem firsthand at Wuhan University, one of the top 10 schools in China. While not as elite as Peking University or Tsinghua (which are often referred to as China’s Harvard and MIT, respectively), Wuhan is certainly one of China’s Ivies. Yet while the dozen or so students I met with there were clearly bright and hard working, they had trouble thinking creatively or outside the box. One young man claimed he wanted to put his economics degree to work fixing China’s environment. But when I asked him how he might go about that — by starting a company? Lobbying the government? Using social media? — he looked confused and simply shrugged.

One reason for this sort of response might be that Chinese education typically encourages students to stay in the box and not question authority. “There is growing concern, among parents, employers and policymakers alike, that the system’s emphasis on rote learning and high-stakes exam taking does not foster the mental agility and innovative flair that the 21st century economy will need,” says a McKinsey report on the Chinese educational system and skills gap released in May. It’s a high-stakes problem. McKinsey estimates that at the lower end of the labor market (meaning factory workers with primary education or less) there will be 23 million more workers than jobs in China by 2020. Meanwhile, at the top end (workers with university degrees or vocational training) there’s an increasing talent shortage — Chinese employers will need about 24 million more workers than the country is likely to supply during the same time span. If the country doesn’t bridge the gap, the opportunity cost is likely to be $250 billion, according to McKinsey.

(MORE: China’s Chicken-and-Egg Problem: What Comes First, Wealth or Freedom?)

The big problem is that while China is churning out plenty of university graduates, they don’t have the skills they need to satisfy potential employers — they lack technical training, can’t speak English well enough, don’t know how to work in teams or think critically, can’t problem solve creatively, and don’t have soft skills. (One employer in the McKinsey report complains, “Smiling and shaking hands; I have to teach this to people in their 20s and early 30s.”)

Victor Yuan, the head of Horizon, a Chinese polling firm, blames the overexpansion of higher education in China. “University programs here grew too quickly, and without the proper preparation of teachers and professors,” he says. “You’ve got 500 schools of finance and investment, for example, but sometimes only a single professor to teach you various topics.” Indeed, the statistics would seem to bear out his opinion: There’s a 40% unemployment rate for white collar workers in China, and multinational companies will often import workers for top positions rather than hire locals. While China graduates over 600,000 engineers a year, McKinsey Global Institutes estimates that only 1 in 10 had the skills to make it in a foreign multinational.

This “supply paradox” is being tackled in a variety of ways. Chinese who can afford it are sending their children abroad for school earlier and earlier. Indeed, the hottest area in Chinese for-profit education these days isn’t test prep for Harvard, but for Andover — rich Chinese parents want to send their children to the best boarding schools in the U.S. and the U.K.

Meanwhile, there’s an increasing push to bridge the mismatch between skills and job requirements by connecting employers with workers, a trend that mirrors what’s happening in the U.S. A private company called China Vocational Training Holdings works with carmakers to provide high-end technical training to 100,000 students a year. (Even the Chinese manufacturing sector is under pressure, as rising wages, energy costs and greater productivity in other countries mean work that was once done in China is moving elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and even back to the U.S.) A number of other programs are being set up in areas like Shanghai and Guangdong to teach migrant workers — who might once have gone to work in factories — the kind of skills more useful to China’s growing service sector, like logistics or cosmetology.

Yuan himself has set up a nonprofit organization designed to foster creativity and entrepreneurship among young people, offering students grant money for new businesses and teaching soft skills to college graduates. “When students graduate from university here, they are lost. College in China is a walled garden — they graduate, and they can’t do anything.” If the Middle Kingdom is to spur growth and avoid social discontent, it will have to make sure they don’t languish too long.

MORE: Why They Build Mega Yachts in Central China — an Economic Mystery Story

28 comments
msmahumane
msmahumane

It is all common to think that the grass is greener in neighbor's yard, so it is no exception for Chinese to think the same way. I once attended a PhD graduation in Science and Engineering and guess what: 90% of graduating students were foreigners and mostly Chinese and Indians. One has to ask himself the reason behind that.

Destroyed
Destroyed

Hey Obama, stop spying on me.

YukongZhao
YukongZhao

Education in China and US have both strengths and weakness. The right approach is to learn the strengths from other side. China needs to learn more about of independent thinking and rule of law while the US needs to learn more about an emphasise on education, a core values of Confucianism. As early as 2500 years ago, Confucianism already developed many education principles and methods which the US current education system has clearly missed, unfortunately.

More importantly, the increasing influence of our dumbing down pop-culture, worship of celebrities and sports stars are distrating students from learning, and over-emphasis on self-esteem have lowered the US education standard.

The article would be better if the author advocates learning from each other, instead of focusing on the education problem of China. Our media cannot always tell our readers all bad stories about China while China is actually advancing faster than the US. The readers also need to know what make them successful!

wuming
wuming

For these comments below which target at promoting China image so blast US education, I feel so disappointed. This article is honest one. We can't deny many Chinese students are talent and creative, not a surprise. For this article, it's not about the question of Chinese students more creative or not, and it's something we Chinese should concern and change it. The wrong of the education system of China is deeply rooted in its leading theory - communism, there are so many elites have cried for the reform of it for years, but nothing changed. What the authority of education system concerned is the stability of CCP's power since it has seized it. Like what the author said, Chinese students are asked to stay in box and no question authority. I am not going to blame these comments alike, it's very common across the internet from Chinese nationalist, and it's tragic for Chinese people indeed humanity. When they take critics as their enemy, they are so far away from what they called "spirit of Chinese".

para82
para82

  You keep spewing out the old nonsense that Chinese students are not creative and can not think outside the box. The 2009 PISA TEST convincingly proved that the students from Shanghai and 8 other regions in China  are very creative and solid in basics, while American students did badly. That means American students are neither creative nor knowledgeable  in basics.   According to Dr. Andreas Schleicher who was in charge of the PISA TEST on behalf of OECD, stated that one doesn't do well on  PISA TEST. if one lacks  creative thinking.  China had an educational reform a little over 10 years ago,  and moved away from strict rote learning to encouraging  critical thinking on the part of students. Obviously the positive results showed up abundantly  on the 2009    PISA TEST.  Also another education  reform is going on now. You talk about the skill-mismatches between  Chinese college graduates and businesses .  In my opinion,  the problem in the U.S. is even worse.  Many American executives are complaining   about the lack of proper skills on the part of American college graduates.  I asked the other day  3 American  college students to name the capital of China, only one of them could name Beijing.  I also asked to explain the very simple  Pythagorean Theorem.  None of them could.  This is how low the knowledge level of American college students is.  No wonder the U.S. is  reforming the immigration law so that it can bring more skilled overseas. workers .  Before you berate the ever-reforming Chinese education  system,  you should look at how badly the American K-12  education system failed  it's students.  By the middle of this century, academically  very underachieving Hispanics and blacks will be  a majority in America, if America does not raise their academic levels very soon,  America is doomed. At least China does not have this kind of problem.

YukongZhao
YukongZhao

A great example is Chinese Americans who combined their Confucian heritage with American creativity. In the last five years' Intel Talent Search and Siemens Science Competition, Chinese American students takes up about 20% of the finalist prize winners while their population in the US is about 2% only. They are also the top winnere in various math and science competitions such as Math Count.

YukongZhao
YukongZhao

China's education system suffers from insufficient emphasis of social skill development and independent thinking. However, they are good at building a solid academic foundation, which the US is far behind Confucianism influenced Asian countries. Our dumbing down pop-culture also distract students from learning. The right approach is the combination of both strengths of the Confucian Values and American culture.

duduong
duduong

China has lots of US educated scholars in humanities. They are often brainwashed by the American theories and cannot think rationally for themselves. As a result, they complain about an innovation gap. But South Korea and Singapore have basically the same grade school systems and curriculum; they are innovating just fine.

Fortunately, Chinese leaders are not so misguided. They realize that their problem is that the system is too similar to the American version, not too different. There are so many universities in China now and the college degrees have been cheapened to such a point that graduates often have no useful skills. Their solution: adopting the German model by starting to emphasize high-school level professional training. This is just beginning and we can expect to see some significant changes in five to ten years.


twogunchuck
twogunchuck

Is the author of this article seriously suggesting that America's horrific K-12 system is preparing a 21st century work force?


BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

China is what Japan in the last 80's. A paper tiger. Social change is going to cause alot of problems for China. They know it and wont admit it until its too late.