The utilitarian tendency of the Chinese education system

The notice issued by the Ministry of Education in late November ordering universities to cut enrolment for majors that have a less than 60 percent employment rate for two consecutive years is just another example of how Chinese higher education is becoming more and more utilitarian.

The plan is apparently aimed at helping university students find jobs and reduce graduate unemployment, which currently stands at nearly ten percent according to a survey by MYCOS, a Beijing-based academic data centre published in June. And labour market data shows that 630,989 university graduates were chasing just 464,426 job vacancies in the third quarter of this year, meaning close to 200,000 graduates could not find jobs. Moreover, the oversupply of graduate labour means that even those university graduates who do eventually find jobs quite often earn salaries lower than that of migrant workers.

Despite the acute employment situation facing university graduates, some critics point out that many students don’t go to university simply to get a job but to pursue their interests and better themselves as human beings. They may be very well prepared for a tough job market and, and as such, the government should not have the only say on which university majors survive and which do not.

The current government policy linking majors directly and solely to employment will exacerbate the growing utilitarian tendency of higher education in China. This has been typified recently by universities’ blind pursuit of all kinds of targets, especially enrolment and employment figures. Experts say the competition among university to capture “quality” students from all over the country has never been stronger.

“It is ridiculous for the government to treat students like products,” said one commentator in Southern Metropolis Daily.  “The essence of university study is multi-disciplinary interaction and cultivating students’ holistic development. The excessive focuses on employment will only make higher education more and more utilitarian.”

That said, since nearly all the published employment rates for university majors are highly inflated, and never seem to fall below 90 percent on average, the policy to cut classes with rates below 60 percent is unlikely to have any material impact. After the policy goes into effect, the utilitarian university officials will probably inflate their employment figures to an even larger extent in order to protect their existing majors.
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