China goes to college - in a big way
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"College is all about knowing yourself," asserts Yi Fang, who just graduated with a degree in finance and will pursue a master's degree in marketing. But many of her friends, she says, are just coming to grips with the fact that even a degree from Tsinghua doesn't necessarily mean an immediate great leap forward.Skip to next paragraph
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"Many wanted to go into investment banking, and they didn't get it," Ms. Yi says in fluent English, echoing budding American yuppies of the 1980s. She pauses. "I have so many choices. There's more uncertainty than four years ago."
Part of that uncertainty comes from intense competition between graduates. Given a choice, most students will still opt for a name-brand public school. But private institutions, like Beijing Geely University, have a strong card to play: practical skills that can quickly land you a job.
"There is a lot of competition among universities - there's a big shortage," says executive president Luo Xiaoming. But simply expanding enrollment at existing universities is not the answer, he says. "That affects quality, and that gives us a window."
Mr. Luo ticks off his school's goals: Practice and scientific work are a must, he says, as is theory - "but not too much." Then there's character education. "This is most important," he insists, saying that a well-rounded young citizen is essential to China's future.
Geely is more expensive than public schools: It charges some 8,000 yuan (about $1,000) per year versus a public school's more typical 6,000 yuan. Financial aid is available, Luo says. And they provide employment: nearly 100 percent of grads got job offers last year, many of them with Geely, Luo says. The source of their success, he argues, is a culture of innovation.
That focus on thinking outside the box - as well as developing a young scholar who can sort through Plato as well as a software program - is helping to drive China's rethink. The country has long valued education, of course: The 2,500-year-old precepts of Confucius undergirded learning until just over a century ago. European and American influence helped build a rich university system in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
But in 1949, the rules changed. "In the course of revolution, China destroyed one of the most promising areas of higher education outside Europe and North America," says William Kirby, dean of faculty at Harvard University and a China scholar. The tumultuous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s was particularly damaging: National entrance exams were temporarily scrapped, students ignored their classes, and schools stopped admitting new students - or producing graduates.
"People really understand that [the Cultural Revolution] stopped China for several years and isolated it," says Dr. Shi. Now, she says, people have their eyes on the "world standard" - be it for WTO issues or biomedical engineering. And they're focused intently on catching up.
"It's stunning the degree to which China has reemerged as one of the leaders in the developing world, and a leader in the global development of technical talent," says Dr. Kirby.
The move toward international standards, however, poses one particularly sensitive challenge: how to handle more open discussion of politically touchy topics, as well as greater academic freedom that could lead some to challenge accepted authority.
There has been progress. "What used to be delicate matters of history are more openly discussed by scholars," says Harvard's Kirby. "You can do serious research on [pre-1949] Nationalist rule, for example, and praise [then-leader] Chiang Kai-Shek as a patriot."
But, he adds, "It's much easier to be open and frank as a foreign scholar." Still, there's little question that China has opened its classrooms in numerous ways. It's a dramatic change from 20 years ago, when the major universities taught only a select population, and followed a relatively prescribed curriculum. At the time, outreach programs and extension schools were unheard of.
"China has an enormous market of well-educated people who are primed to go to college," says Kirby. Now, he says, it is making an enormous investment in that talent.