China is producing too many college graduates. That was the view of Yale University president Richard Levin. Before he retired from the presidency of Yale University, President Levin was interviewed by China’s CCTV. His view of Chinese higher education was the traditional American perspective of supply-and-demand.
China thinks otherwise.
Seizing a school leadership vacuum that was the result of closing down education during China’s Cultural Revolution from 1965-1975, China’s Ministry of Education massively re-organized their university system in the late 1990s. They closed poor-performing colleges, consolidated many, and moved some national universities to provincial jurisdiction. And select universities were chosen for massive infusion of funding that doubled their university enrolments every five years.
This “massification” of higher education has exceeded any effort to expand higher education in human history. No other expansion—including the GI Bill era in the United States—comes close. As a result, China will add 7.3 million college graduates this spring (classes are still in session here). However, with the 2008 Great Recession that originated in the United States slowing the world economy, upward mobility in China has likewise slowed. As a result, for several years the opportunities for college graduates in China has tightened, similar to the plight of students in many Western countries. New graduates here have a phrase that roughly translates: “the fight for desk jobs.”
After that earlier 10-minute interview with Richard Levin, the CCTV television host then interviewed the retiring president of a Hong Kong university and asked him the same question: is China overproducing college graduates? His answer showed the different Asian “long view.”
No, the distinguished president asserted. China is not educating students for today’s talent demands. It is looking decades down the road to what it will need when 60 percent and then 70 percent of its population has moved into the developed zones. And he had clear figures that showed the proportion of the adult populations that were college-educated in European countries and elsewhere. To think short-sighted and follow today’s market demand would leave China short of talent tomorrow.
I personally suspect that part of their strategy was to also force a portion of their surplus talent to move out into the countryside “by accretion.” But the young graduates have little desire to move into hinterlands that in some ways resemble our Appalachia of the 1930s.
Therefore it is no surprise that this year, China has announced that it is going to convert about 600 colleges and universities into technical schools. Details have not been released but it appears that China will maintain its academic university capacity.
The drive for more true technical schools is driven by China’s rapid and massive shift away from being a country of cheap labor. As they have dramatically increased the level of education of these last generations, they are rapidly losing the cheap factory jobs to less developed countries. China needs more plumbers, electricians, mechanics and other skilled workers to service a wealthier population that now has a middle class bigger than the United States.
As a result, China will be infusing money into expanding new tech schools beyond what they already have. Some are already high end, such as the school focusing solely on electrical engineering and underwritten by Hewlett-Packard in the massive University City in Chongqing. A Beijing technical school has formed an alliance with Mercedes-Benz and will focus on automotive engineering.
The distinction between technical schools and academic universities is very clear in China. When I describe how Kansas allows our technical schools to teach academic courses to apply toward a bachelors degree, jaws drop. Why would you do that? Who would teach such courses? How could it be as rigorous compared to a real university?
And just how can I explain it? China knows the difference between an academic education and job training. Our educational leadership doesn’t.