So more university graduates will solve all our problems, eh?

In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee.

“College essentially provided them with nothing,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system. “For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability.”

In a kind of cruel reversal, China’s old migrant class — uneducated villagers who flocked to factory towns to make goods for export — are now in high demand, with spot labor shortages and tighter government oversight driving up blue-collar wages.

But the supply of those trained in accounting, finance and computer programming now seems limitless, and their value has plunged. Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for migrant laborers grew by nearly 80 percent; during the same period, starting pay for college graduates stayed the same, although their wages actually decreased if inflation is taken into account.

How so very unlike our own dear educational system, eh?

You might even think that with the same thing happening in two wildly different economies, on different sides of the world, that there might be some sort of universal rules about this.

You know, the laws of supply and demand perhaps?

8 comments on “So more university graduates will solve all our problems, eh?

  1. It happened in Egypt too, so the phenomenon can be said to be worldwide. In the 80s, there were so many unemployed graduates they were assigned as shadows. Every expat site office was infested with these no nothings. And there was a rise in street corner radicalism (and subs for the Muslim Brotherhood).
    Maybe there’s another universal lesson to be learned? Like, make the exams harder, perhaps?

  2. “Every expat site office was infested with these no nothings”

    And lo! I invoke a variant of Muphry’s rule.

    Almost nothing that is true of developing economies is true of advanced economies. I don’t think you’ll get far arguing that a country like China needs to invest less in human capital, that is unless you think that the “Asian Developmental Model” (if such a thing exists) hasn’t worked…which it has (if it exists), because highly educated workforces is a large part of it.

  3. I’m reposting my comment from your “What a Shocker”piece of a few days ago. You showed some disdain for the problems of “Woo pedlers” (psycho-therapists in this case) who didn’t want to be regulated by the state–some agency created by new labour.
    I’m reposting because this story seems to me to be about the same thing from another angle.

    “Can we take that you are in favour of occupational licensing then Tim?. The scum of the state(who can’t even order in enough grit for the roads) deciding who can and can’t do business and on what terms. Whatever the merits of psychotherapy it will be a busted flush after this HPC shower have finished with it. They will be just a bunch of risk-assessing losers, in the same way that the SIA has regulated doormen into a state of near uselessness. Now, if you are getting your head kicked in in some nightclub it is much wiser for the bouncers to stand and watch than to risk a complaint(which would cost them their license=job)from any yobbo they might sort out on your behalf.
    Make no mistake, the political scum want licensing for EVERYTHING because it brings them lots of cash and control. Do you want to see the old Guilds of the Middle Ages back again?That should finish the market system nicely.”

    The state also wants lots of mugs going through their crap “educational” systems as a part of their plans to ultimately require state licensing and control for absolutly every occupation imaginable.

  4. When speaking to examples of politicus imbecilicus, especially senior ones, you need to use small words and simple, declarative sentences. It’s no use using loose generalisations like “We need a well educated workforce.” That’s far too open to misinterpretation. You need to say things like “Schools should teach children to read, write and add up.” Otherwise they just fly off at a tangent.

  5. I am friends with a couple of Chinese students. They say there are only 4 universities in China worth going to. If you don’t get into them, you can try going abroad if you have the money. Every other university in China is worthless and everyone knows it. People go there to study ‘because there’s nothing else to do’.

  6. I wonder if someone somewhere keeps thinking ‘Average earnings of a graduate are higher than the overall average. Load more of graduates = higher overall average!’ without considering supply and demand.

    Has everything become an obsession with league tables, usually OECD ones?

    The State directing higher education is unnecessary. It is a white elephant for prestige just as much as Concorde or The Dome.

    I am inclined to agree with Mr Ecks too. The State is throttling education like it is throttling employment with licences, regulation, taxation and direction. Some of it may be done with the best of intentions but it isn’t working.

  7. I can’t help thinking of the old teaching joke here, that the only proven relationship between wealth and a good education is that wealthy people like to purchase a good education for their children.

  8. This was the focus of a research project I did last year in Beijing.

    In addition to the supply and demand problem (oversupply of graduates in certain subjects because of perceived prestige, e.g. Chinese literature), there is the problem that it was incorrectly assumed that household consumption levels would increase with net domestic production.

    As such, the tertiary sector is not able to create enough jobs to absorb the new graduates. The secondary sector still drives the economy, and as it is has less employment-growth elasticity and the prerequisite of technical skills, it leaves the social science graduates living in “ant farms” on the outskirts of major cities, commuting for hours a day to do unskilled work.

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