China’s Higher-Education Glut
In its push for universal higher education and greater status on the world stage, China is stringing its young people along with the promise of high-paid, meaningful employment after college. It is a promise that China's economy will not be able to fulfill for a very long time.
MILAN – China has always valued education, reflecting its Confucian tradition, according to which one must excel scholastically to achieve high professional and social status. But today, the country is stricken with what some call “education fever,” as middle-class Chinese parents demand more schooling for their children, and as young people seek ways to avoid the drudgery of factory life.
China’s government, by emphasizing the need for a better-educated workforce to compete with the West, is fueling this trend. This year alone, China produced 7.65 million university graduates – a historic high – and around nine million high school students took the gaokao, China’s general university admission exam. These are staggering figures, even for a country with a billion people and a tertiary-education enrollment rate that is one-third that of advanced economies. To put the trend in perspective, China graduated fewer than two million people from college in 1999, and the pass rate for the gaokao was only 40%, half of what it is today.
Education is never a bad thing in itself, but the move toward “mass universities” of the type that emerged in the West after World War II is occurring too fast and has arrived too soon for the Chinese economy to accommodate it. With China’s transition to a post-industrial economy far from complete, significantly broadening access to university undermines the quality of education and has high collateral costs, socially and economically.