Education for employment and long term economic development in China

By Isa Wong –

The focus of the debate around education system reform in China is increasingly concerned with how best to prepare students for the future, in turn continuing China’s economic development and increasing its international competitiveness. Higher education has a crucial role to play in this—it has to be relevant to today’s society and that of the future, ensuring that students are familiar with and proficient in using the tools and skills which they will be reliant on in employment and 21st Century society in general.

On 29 July 2010, the Ministry of Education released a comprehensive plan outlining its strategies for education in China over the next 10 years: the ‘State Guidelines for Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan between 2010 and 2020’. 1 Embedded within the higher education-related parts of the plan, several key themes are apparent:

an emphasis on vocational education
‘Expanding vocational education must be given more precedence … it is a major channel through which to boost economic growth …’ 2;

a relaxation of central control
‘Higher educational institutions shall be urged to run themselves in distinctive ways, and be categorized and governed accordingly’ 3;

• and an opening up of the tertiary education admission process
‘Matriculation reform shall serve as the breakthrough in the effort to terminate the practice that a single round of examinations decides the destiny of a student… gradually bringing about a new examination and enrolment system whereby examinations are given in different categories, and students are evaluated comprehensively and enrolled in diverse ways’ 4;

Taking each of these themes in turn, it is clear to see why the Ministry of Education is pursuing such a strategy and how these reforms will act as the key building blocks. By remedying current problems and creating a world-class higher education system China aims to stimulate economic development for many years to come.

An increased focus on vocational education is a practical approach in order to develop a more skilled workforce, better able to satisfy market demand. As with other countries in the region, employers are increasingly struggling to find graduates with the suitable skill sets for the roles they are looking to fill. This is despite the fact that between 2001 and 2009, the number of university graduates each year increased by six times, from 1.1 million to 6.1 million. 5

That number increased again to 6.6 million in 2011, while 600,000 graduates from the previous year still didn’t have a job. 6 That means the unemployment rate for college graduates of around 10% is much higher than the 4.1% average urban jobless rate. 7

At the same time, graduates are experiencing difficulties finding jobs in line with their high and potentially unrealistic expectations. In 2011, more than 1.4 million people applied for civil service jobs when there were only 16,000 positions on offer. 8 Certain kinds of jobs, particularly those with a level of prestige or status attached, are more sought after than others and it is not uncommon for graduates to start a job and quit soon after when they realise that it is not the perfect position that they were seeking. Others might not take up roles in the first place as the salary does not satisfy their expectations, so choose to hold out for something better.

There is evidence that a series of measures implemented by the government since 2009 (such as graduate internship schemes, encouraging graduates to join the army, or to teach in remote and disadvantaged areas) is going some way to addressing the unemployment problem, 9 but the figures are still worrying. These problems can only be addressed fully by the kind of broad grass-roots approach that the Development Plan advocates.

It is also worth noting that the increased emphasis on vocational education does not only begin at higher education—importantly, it starts earlier on in the school system that ultimately feeds into colleges and universities. A number of privately funded vocational schools have experienced rapid growth, catering for students from the junior secondary level upwards. Private investment has also played a key role in the establishment of training centres and programmes that teach participants specific work-related skills. Courses include language and IT training, and other vocational/business-related subjects such as accounting and finance, HR, cooking, beauty, hairdressing, tailoring, car maintenance and teacher training. Nearly 100 million people take part in some form of such training in China each year. 10

In order to ensure that graduates possess the kind of skills that employers are looking for and help more of them to find jobs, the vocational and training sectors must continue to be developed further in China throughout the coming years. Key to this will be consolidating the industry, developing recognised brands, as at present it remains highly fragmented. 11 It is important that the sector is standardised and a degree of consistency is established in the kind of courses being undertaken and the qualifications that they lead to, giving employers a common benchmark by which to judge their job applicants.

Further issues worthy of mention with relation to graduate unemployment are geographical imbalances and the residency restrictions which many cities in China still enforce. Inability to gain the coveted hukou, or permanent residence permit, of their city of study when their course finishes means that many graduates have to return to their place of origin after graduation, often to rural areas with few prospects for graduates. In 2011, the State Council chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao recommended that cities should remove these restrictions except for the major municipalities: Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing. Booming cities in the south such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou have already eased their rules, but criticisms remain that it is still only a piecemeal approach.

There continues to be a lack of graduate mobility and those leaving university still want to be in the big municipalities in spite of there being a demand for graduates in many smaller cities and towns away from the coast. The policy of making graduates who relocate to western or central China, and those who join the army, eligible for a full refund of their tuition fees (dubbed the ‘Go West’ refund), might go some way to addressing this imbalance. 12

On a different level, removing bureaucracy and administrative restrictions and relaxing central control over universities in order to give them increased autonomy will be beneficial in a number of ways. The Development Plan calls for higher education institutions to ‘overcome the tendency toward homogeneity, foster distinctive school-running philosophies and styles, distinguish themselves at different levels and in different fields, and strive to be the best’. 13 By releasing central control and enabling institutions to make their own decisions with regard to how they are run, university presidents and faculties will have greater flexibility to operate in the optimum way that suits them best. They will be able to hire more freely and develop unique research specialities—a core value for world-class institutions is freedom of research, publication, teaching and students’ activities on and outside campus. 14 These freedoms are vital in order to retain top academic talent within the country and enable funding to facilitate cutting edge research to be allocated where necessary.

Keeping top talent within China is key in terms of maintaining international competitiveness and elevating research capabilities in the way that the Development Plan calls for; contributing to innovation in knowledge, technology, national defence and the sciences. 15

Increasingly Chinese universities are competing in a global marketplace for academic talent, and that talent is often lured away from the country by other countries and institutions also eager to increase their own pools of top talent. Some countries (for example nearby Australia and New Zealand) now grant additional points in their immigration systems to students who have studied in their universities in an attempt to attract more international students and encourage them to stay in the country after their studies have finished. 16 This is directly counter to recent developments in some other nations, including England.

For top quality research to flourish, any emphasis on research quantity and targets set by central government should be eased, and giving institutions greater autonomy will help do this. There have been criticisms in the past that micromanagement by university administrators, acting on instructions from central government, forces all universities to chase the same targets, leading to a ‘monotony of purpose’. Since 1999, the presidents of China’s 31 leading universities have automatically had the administrative rank of Vice-Minister bestowed upon them and some argue that this is not healthy in promoting academic culture since professors come to be more concerned with rank than academic standards. There might therefore be a concern in some quarters that moves to greater autonomy will go hand in hand with losing crucial connections—and influence—with powerful government departments, and this is something that will need to be overcome. 17

Opening up the higher education admission process and moving away from an exam-centric system is also important on several levels. As with vocational education mentioned above, this isn’t something specifically advocated to begin from higher education onwards. At all levels of education, the Development Plan puts ‘a premium on integrating learning with thinking’ and advocates that teaching should be ‘heuristic, exploratory, discussion-based, and participatory’, helping students learn how to study, stimulating their curiosity, developing their interest and hobbies, and fostering an environment for independent thinking, exploration and innovation. 18

This is in-line with the kind of 21st Century Skills promoted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These are aimed at equipping young people with new skills and competencies to allow them to benefit from the emerging new forms of socialisation and to contribute actively to economic development under a system where the main asset is knowledge. 19 21st Century Skills put an emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation. Information, media and technology skills are crucial too in the ever-expanding digital world.

This approach marks a stark contrast to the theory that passing exams and getting the highest possible score is the raison d’être of going to school and studying. Moving away from a ‘one-exam-decides-all’ system for entry into higher education towards a more holistic evaluation of students as ‘whole people’ using multiple tests and measures, sets an important benchmark for earlier levels of the education system. It will encourage schools to adopt broader curricula for teaching to help their students become more rounded individuals, with a view to ensuring that they have a wide range of experiences and skills to draw on when applying to universities.

As with vocational education, these changes will start from the junior secondary level as the early stages of the education system have a key role to play in ensuring that students are properly prepared for study in tertiary education. There is a common problem across Asia Pacific of students arriving at higher education not properly prepared with the skills and competencies necessary for further study at degree level. Moving away from purely test-based admissions and diversifying university entrance criteria and processes will help to foster a culture across the wider education system where this is no longer the case.

In spite of this, some concerns have been raised with regard to reforming the gaokao, or national college entrance examination. With the gaokao no longer being the only criterion for admission, various other factors such as teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities are likely to feature more prominently.

All of these issues will have a bearing on how effective China’s Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan will be. Nevertheless, by bolstering vocational education, relaxing central control and allowing institutions greater autonomy, and moving away from an exam-focused admissions system, the building blocks are being put in place for a truly world-class higher education system in China. Graduate unemployment rates will drop as those leaving higher education will be better prepared for the challenges of 21st Century life and employment. Higher education institutions will become hubs for specialist research, producing innovative scientific and technological developments to ensure long term economic development and keep China at the forefront of international competitiveness.

Isa Wong is President, Greater China, Pearson Asia Pacific. She oversees all of the Pearson Education businesses in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, including Edexcel and The New York Institute of Finance.

  1. The Chinese version can be found here:, and there is an English version here:
  2. State Guidelines for Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan between 2010 and 2020:, pp.16–17.
  3. Ibid., p.21.
  4. Ibid., pp.26-27.
  5. KPMG, Education in China, 2010,, p.1.
  6. Yojana Sharma, Guidelines to ease graduate unemployment, University World News, Issue No:175, 12 June 2011, accessed May 2012,
  7. EconMatters, College Graduates: Too Many in China, Not Enough in America?, July 4 2011, accessed May 2012,
  8. BBC, Young and unemployed: China’s six million graduates, 19 July 2011, accessed May 2012,
  9. KPMG, Education in China, 2010,, p.10.
  10. Ibid., pp.9–11.
  11. KPMG, Education in China, 2010,, p.11.
  12. Yojana Sharma, Guidelines to ease graduate unemployment, University World News, Issue No:175, 12 June 2011, accessed May 2012,
  13. State Guidelines for Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan between 2010 and 2020:, p.21.
  14. Linda Yeung, Ex-premier criticises higher education reform, University World News, Issue No: 169, 01 May 2011, accessed May 2012,
  15. State Guidelines for Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan between 2010 and 2020:, pp.20–21
  16. OECD, Education at a Glance 2011: Highlights, OECD Publishing, 2011, accessed April 2012,, p.34.
  17. David Cyranoski, China debates university reform, Nature 464, 336-337 (2010), accessed May 2012,
  18. State Guidelines for Medium-to-Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan between 2010 and 2020:, p.25.
  19. Ananiadou, K. and M. Claro, 21st Century Skills and Competences for New Millennium Learners in OECD Countries, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 41, OECD Publishing, 2009,, p.5.

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