China’s looming graduate bubble

China faces a graduate bubble driven by rapid expansion in its higher education sector. Chinese graduates are finding it difficult to gain employment. In 1997, 400,000 students graduated from four-year university programs. Today, Chinese schools produce more than 3 million per year.

Carl Minzner, from Fordham Law School argues that a rush to open universities and amass academic credentials has devalued diplomas. ‘Rapid expansion has had disastrous effects. Degree devaluation is one result. When relatively rare in the 1990s, college degrees sufficed to get jobs. Now a common commodity, they no longer do’.

In a fast expanding system, backed by massive funding, quality suffers. Dr Minzner argues that the mania to expand has spurred blind competition in Chinese schools to rack up ever-increasing numbers of published articles and professors with elite degrees. ‘A culture of junk research and academic corruption has resulted’. Actual education of students has become a secondary (or tertiary) concern. ‘Chinese employers complain that schools are producing a flood of newly minted graduates with a deep sense of entitlement, but short on actual skills.’

Chinese authorities are taking stopgap measures. ‘Officials have increased enrollment in domestic master’s programs to absorb a flood of unemployed college graduates. But expanded levels of graduate education have merely disguised and delayed youth unemployment, resulting in media stories such as “Graduate with Master’s Degree in Law Seeks Position as Cafeteria Worker.”

Minzner suggests that the failing higher education system is driving high quality Chinese students to seek education abroad. ‘Many are choosing to forgo the national college entrance examination in favor of directly enrolling in universities or even high schools abroad. And faced with severe budget pressures, many American schools have dramatically increased recruitment of Chinese students paying full tuition’.

China needs to re-evaluate its state development priorities, said Minzner. State have prioritize university education at the expense of all else. ‘But ironically, unemployment rates for 21-25 year olds in the country are four times lower for elementary school graduates than for university students – precisely because huge demand exists for skilled technical positions that many university graduates are unable (or unwilling) to fill. Rebalancing state priorities to emphasize a diversity of higher education models – postgraduate, university, college and vocational – might help better address looming problems of youth unemployment. Nor are such policies new. They resemble those China pursued in the 1950s or 1980s and in use in Germany today, but abandoned in the frantic rush of the past 15 years to throw up universities with ever more impressive academic credentials.

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