Yesterday morning I read this article by Gordon Orr at McKinsey on what could happen in China in the coming year to two groups whose members I thought would find it interesting. It covers a pretty wide range of economic issues, and it most certainly does not proclaim the use of gold paving stones on China’s roads, but the very small section that really grabbed my interest was the two paragraphs headed “Students reinvent themselves for the jobs of 2015”. It paints a depressing picture for China’s university students, but the prospects for those soon to graduate have not looked particulary good for some years now.

There are two particular points in these two paragraphs that I want to look at. I’ll title one “The System” and the other “Changes”. I also see an opportunity here.

The System:

Let’s look at the third sentence of the first paragraph:

Indeed, many will find what they learned and how they learned at university has done little to prepare them for the 2015 job market in China.

Now, part of me wants to fly off on some wild rant about how the fundamental assumptions underlying that statement are all wrong…. but that’s a topic for another day. Grumble and grouch as I might, the world expects university graduates to be ready for work, and for universities to prepare students for work. And I see two key components to that sentence:

  1. …what they learned…
  2. …how they learned…

I don’t think there’s much reasonable, rational or helpful that can be said about the “what they learned” component, as that’s going to vary so wildly across academic disciplines, and for vastly different reasons. But it is fair to say that universities could ask themselves some hard questions about why they are requiring students to take many of the classes they grudgingly sit through. One problem is the sheer rigidity of the system. It is not uncommon to hear students complain that they have no interest in what they are studying and that they’d much rather be studying something else. There are a variety of reasons for this – their grades on the College Entrance Exam/Gao Kao and parental demands are two of the more common – and, of course, what they would prefer to be studying can change through the course of their undergraduate career as they learn more about the world and themselves. But they find themselves in a very rigid system in which they have very little control over what they study and they find it very difficult to change majors or otherwise pursue their real interests.

“How they learned”, well, there is a point that really needs some good, hard thinking and far-reaching reform. What follows is gross generalisation to be taken with an appropriately-sized grain of salt: Chinese education is still very teacher-centred, still very much about a teacher standing at the front of the room presenting information for students to memorise and regurgitate in an exam.

A common complaint I hear, something I seem to see evidence of as I walk past classrooms, something I have experienced on a course I took nearly two years ago, is “PPT-itis” – the over-reliance on powerpoint presentations, even to the extent of substituting actual planning and preparation for a powerpoint, perhaps even one borrowed from somebody else, and then simply reading that out. In one extreme case, students told me of one teacher sight-translating English-language presentations she hadn’t even looked over before class and having to stop mid-lesson and run words she didn’t know through Baidu Translate. But hey, the information is being presented to the students, isn’t it? So isn’t the job being done?

But there’s a third point missing from Orr’s analysis: Credentialism. Very many students are worried less about learning anything and far more about getting their degree, or passing the CET Band 4 and 6 exams being held this weekend, or the many other exams out there, because they know that when they are out looking for work, many potential employers are going to be more interested in seeing their credentials, the piles of magic pieces of paper officially proclaiming they have passed this or graduated from that, than their actual abilities.

Remember, those are gross generalisations about a large, diverse country. Of course, I can think of plenty of counter-examples. But they hold as true as generalisations can – those are common problems in Chinese education.

So back to Orr’s point – an awful lot of graduates are woefully underprepared for actual work. But how could they be prepared by a system so teacher-centred and so focussed on the accumulation of credentials?

Changes:

Here are the final two sentences of the second paragraph:

Growth in vocational schools is being boosted by many newly graduated students who realize they need to gain more work-relevant skills. Those students still in school will become more vocal in demanding change in what and how they are taught.

It’s a pity that Orr does not seem to distinguish between universities, which were not founded to train people for jobs and should not be required, or even requested to, and vocational schools, but again, that’s a rant for another day. Here he offers a solution: Vocational schools.

But are student demands really going to drive the change? My impression is that students enter university all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed looking forward to all the freedom they’re about to get to experiment and explore and generally just do what they’ve been wanting to do for years, but well before they graduate they’re hardened and cynical and just playing the game because these are the rules and this is the system they’ve found themselves in. Are employer demands going to drive the change? Complaints about graduates being incapable of actually doing anything have been around for years, and yet nothing seems to have changed.

An opportunity?

New Zealand universities, polytechs, and schools generally have been recruiting students from China for many years now, yet for all the importance of export education to the New Zealand economy, and despite China’s position as the number one source of international students to New Zealand schools, I think that in this mess of issues with Chinese education there are still some important points for New Zealand schools to remember.

New Zealand’s universities generally offer a much more flexible, student-centred education, and this needs to be emphasised. Students have much more freedom in New Zealand to explore a wider range of subjects and disciplines, much more freedom to change their majors, and much more freedom to mix and match subjects into double majors and double degrees.

New Zealand’s polytechs/institutes of technology focus on vocational training, actually preparing students for work, developing a set of skills that will set them on a path to a solid career. This, too, needs to be emphasised.

And the quality of this education and training needs to be emphasised, too. No amount of beautiful, clean, green scenery is going to cut it. Chinese parents are not parting with huge sums of money so their kids can enjoy a stereotypical New Zealand lifestyle. They’re investing in their kids’ future, and they want to be sure that investment is going to bring good returns.

But there is a challenge: New Zealand, even though its most populous island is the biggest fish ever caught by any fisherman, is a very small fish in a very large pond stocked with many very large fish. New Zealand is easily lost and overlooked in this crowded, noisy environment. Over the years many students have asked me about studying in New Zealand and almost all of them have been coming from a position in which all they know about New Zealand is that it’s the very beautiful homeland of their teacher. On one quite memorable occasion a student who was about to graduate and head off to a much larger, better known country to do her masters told me that when she started university she thought of New Zealand as a place to go when you’re old, and not as a country for young people, and she now kind of regretted that, having since learned a little bit more about the world.

My problem now is that I can’t tell you how New Zealand can do any better at getting its message out there. I can tell you that an awful lot of people are marketing New Zealand education. Many schools have official Weibo accounts. I know people in the industry. For years New Zealand schools have been doing deals with Chinese schools. I have a Baidu news alert for 新西兰 (Xīnxīlán, New Zealand) emailed to me each morning and a huge proportion of its contents are some variation or another on “study in New Zealand”.

But I can also tell you that this widespread dissatisfaction with China’s education system still represents a huge opportunity for New Zealand.

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