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From world factory to learning society – the education landscape in China and a ten-year plan


It was a rainy Friday afternoon. After a four-hour train trip from Shanghai, I finally arrived at Linhai, a coastal city located in the south of Zhejiang province – one of the wealthiest provinces of China. I came here to have an unofficial meeting with a college friend who is government official of this city, hoping to get some insights from him about the education policies and plans in China, from the government perspective. This is one of many interviews we are doing for the future of education initiative in SAP, to study the ongoing paradigm shift in the education sector globally, envision how technologies are enabling or accelerating these changes, and identify SAP’s opportunities in this space to make a positive social impact. John Mayerhofer has outlined the program framework in his umbrella post.   

The city of Linhai is relatively small in China, with a little bit more than 1 million population. On my way from the train station to hotel, through the taxi window I saw the city’s old urban district, surrounded by aged residential buildings, crowded commercial streets, and historical attractions. Then all of the sudden I found myself already entered into the city’s new “development zone” with a completely different landscape – broad but empty driveways, bizarre modern architectures, and lots of new apartment buildings everywhere – some are under construction, and those completed neighborhoods look quite under-occupied from outside. This is a common scene of third-tier cities in China today. To attract domestic and overseas investors to the city and also to reap more government revenue from land sales, this type of government-invested “development zones” emerged everywhere in China decades ago. Unlike those first-tier and second–tier cities where development zones have successfully evolved into new CBDs, smaller cities like Linhai face more challenges to attract critical mass of residents, retail and commercial businesses to move into these new districts, and therefore they often end up to be under-inhabited “ghost towns” especially after business hours.

I met my friend in the hotel and the conversation turned to be informative. Before I summarize what I learned, let me try to first give a brief overview of the education system in China, in case it’s not familiar to you.

It’s interesting that the ancient education system in China had some similarities with the modern public education system. Since Han dynasty (~2000 years ago), a form of public schools has been established, making education services available to kids from all social classes (but boys only). The curriculum taught in these schools was all about Confucius classics, focusing on social norms and ethics instead of practical knowledge or skills. Then a nation-wide Imperial Exam system was set up to select administrative officials for the state’s bureaucracy based on testing scores, which offered a theoretic path for any male adult in China to move upward to the emperor’s ruling class. The intention behind this education system was very clear – to maintain the social harmony and government stability by implanting unconditional obedience to both civilians and bureaucratic officials.

This ancient system has served its purpose for thousands of years until it was finally discarded in the beginning of 20 century, replaced by a modern education system that first mimics Japan and later United States. However, in the next few decades the world wars, civic war and Mao’s Cultural Revolution disrupted the development, and illiteracy rate remained high in the country. Until 1979 and 1985, two important education reforms were enforced by Deng Xiaoping’s central government, which shaped the education system today. It consists of the following components – preschool, 9-year compulsory education (6-year elementary school + 3-year middle school), high school, vocational education, higher education, and continuing education.  The national higher education entrance examination (aka. Gaokao), using extremely rigid score-based admission criteria, became a fate-changing event for almost every Chinese teenagers.

Huge progress has been witnessed in the past 30 years – significantly reduced illiteracy rate by universal compulsory education, high performance in standardized testing (e.g. ranked top on the PISA assessment 2009), and improved coverage of higher education in population (~25% enrollment rate by 2010). On the other hand, some systematic problems exist and become more and more visible in recent years. There is tons of media coverage on this, but in short I think the problems can be summarized into 2 categories:

  • Score-oriented instead of skills-oriented. This is probably a common problem that exists also in other countries, but the extreme high-stake testing (like Gaokao) in China has made the problem even more severe, producing generations of “high score but low ability” students.
    • Compared with schools in western countries, the classroom in China is more uni-directional and less interactive. Students spent most of their time memorizing facts that can be easily found on Internet within seconds. No pedagogy is designed to encourage independent thinking, creative problem solving, leadership, or social skills. There is a huge skills gap for graduates to meet the job requirements. As the result, the unemployment rate of college graduates is unprecedentedly high in spite of the strong job market, and the average monthly salary they make is reportedly only $44 higher than migrant workers
    • Another problem, probably more severe, is the negative impact on humanity. Children are exposed to competition pressure too early, and as the result they are not happy, they don’t have time to play, and they are disconnected with real life. In schools or home, there is little emphasis on ethics, aesthetics, and curiosity. So when kids grow up, they not only lost their creativity but also don’t know how to enjoy the life, how to appreciate arts, how to share, and how to seek for meaning.  Many people criticized that these characteristics in China’s education system had played a role in shaping the materialistic culture in Chinese society today.  
  • Further rural-urban divide
    • Though the education funding has been increased in wealthier cities and counties, the rural areas (especially the west part of the country) suffer from significant lack of funding and education resources. As an example, only 20% of teachers in rural schools have 4-year colleague degree.   
    • For migrant workers moving from rural areas to cities, their children do not have easy access to the public schools due to the urban registration policy in China. Some private schools emerged that offer lower-cost schooling for these migrant children but often with poor teaching quality and sometimes violation with the safety regulations. Government has closed a lot of these private schools but didn’t provide good solution so far.
    • The national higher education entrance examination (Gaokao), though originally designed to provide equal opportunities for every student, is now believed to fail to serve this purpose, due to the residency-based admission quotas.   

The government is not blind on these problems. A national outline for education reform has been rolled out in 2009, revealing a ten-year roadmap to build a learning society by 2020, with targets defined on all levels of education.

“We should put these education problems into a bigger picture”, my friend said during the conversation. Then he told me that there are 2 mega-themes Chinese government (on both state level and local level) is mostly concerned about in the next 10 years – industrial upgrade and social stability.

1. Industrial Restructuring

The intention to restructure China’s manufacturing-centric, export-dependent, and resource-intensive economy has been existing for years, but the sense of urgency has never been so high this year. Evidenced by the recent economic slowdown, there is strong belief that the current “world factory” economic model in China is not sustainable in the long term due to many factors such as increasing labor cost and material cost, rising Chinese currency, weak global demand, ageing population, increased competition from other developing world, unaffordable real estate prices, and costly pollution problems. Taking Linhai as example, the 4 pillar industries to support the local economy are automotive, construction materials, outdoor leisure products, and shipbuilding. During this round of slow-down, all industries except automotive have been impacted. To mitigate these risks, the local government has decided to give more support to industries like new energy and environmental technologies, new materials, ocean exploitation, high-end industrial equipment, pharmaceutical technologies, and also information technology. However, the bottleneck is not capital, infrastructure, or entrepreneurship, but exactly the lack of innovation ability and high-end specialists. Without having top-notch universities in Linhai, they have to design more incentives to attract talents from outside. On the other hand they also look for means to improve the education quality (especially the innovation capabilities) of local schools, hoping to produce talents who might return to hometown after they graduated from universities in other cities/countries.  

2. Social Stability

Not much different with ancient china, education is seen critical by government to maintain social stability. The divide between social classes and regions has been increasingly high. The Gini coefficient in China is reported to be near 0.5 today. Though the basic living condition for the majority has been significantly improved, people in the cities complain about the sky high housing price, high inflation rate, and food safety, and people in rural areas suffer from low income, polluting industries moving from cities, and unequal opportunities. As the result, social disturbances have occurred more frequently in recent years, which is the least expected thing for the government. 

To maintain the “social harmony”, there are a few things that must be done in the education space.

  1. Education cost must be reduced for non-compulsory education (including higher education). Especially for students from rural areas, more government funding will be allocated for financial aids, and government will make it easier to get bank loans.
  2. The resource problem in rural schools is a difficult problem to solve. You can easily imagine how hard it is to hire an English teacher in impoverished villages. The current volunteer mechanism cannot meet the demand, and there must be other creative solution.
  3. For migrant children, it’s urgent to change the current discriminating policy and provide education services tailored to their needs, which should be low cost and high mobility. Government will collaborate with private schools on this, and will run some pilot schools first.
  4. For all schools, more culture-related elements need to be injected into the education contents. The challenge is the current curriculum and teaching resources need to be restructured for this.
  5. Try to make the continuing education services universal, setting a target for 50% of the working population to participate, which is expected to help for the social stability and health. Government role is to build a platform for industry, service providers, and individual citizens to collaborate on this.

For wealthy cities like Linhai, the emphasis would be on 3, 4, and 5.

It was quite helpful to understand government’s priorities and agenda on this, considering the critical role government is playing in China in all sectors. We can think about how technologies could be applied contextually in China to solve some of specific local problems. Below are just two examples.

  • Khan Academy has teamed up with social network Renren to make their contents available in China, but so far looks like it has not reached out to schools. What if those schools for migrant children first leverage these videos in the classroom to solve their resource problem? Infrastructure (e.g. internet connection, computer access) is often a challenge to apply this online education in rural countries/regions, but in this case it’s not a problem at all since the schools are located in cities with mature infrastructure already in place.  
  • For continuing education, what if we build an internet-based P2P “skill sharing/trading” platform similar to, but also allow industries, schools and training institutions to participate? For example, in the evening, wouldn’t some companies be willing to rent out their meeting rooms as venue for this kind of activities? Wouldn’t an IT engineer be interested in taking a free or low-cost workshop from a fashion designer (even not a famous one) just to satisfy his curiosity about fashion design? Wouldn’t a junior fashion designer be willing to offer a free or low-cost workshop, to improve his presentation skills, meet people from other disciplines and build social connections, and hopefully make some money out of it or even become famous?

Your thoughts?

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      Author's profile photo Witalij Rudnicki
      Witalij Rudnicki

      Very interesting reading! Thanks for that.

      Education is not the easy topic. It is difficult to balance expectations “Is the goal to educate good workers?” vs “Is the goal to educate good people?”. Or should it be about educating leaders (as in interesting book “The Leader in Me: How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time” by Stephen Covey)? It is difficult even to balance an assessment of the state of education. You said here “Students spent most of their time memorizing facts that can be easily found on Internet within seconds.”, but at the same time “two in ten [Americans aged 18 to 24] … cannot point to the Pacific Ocean on a world map.” accordingly to

      The topic is difficult, but it does not mean it’s not worth having the discussion. Good luck to you and John on "Future of Education" initiative.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Thanks Alex for a very informative post! Great to see first-hand research posted on SCN.

      One thing I am wondering is the following: assuming China rolls out a program for fostering innovative thinking, and assuming it works on a large enough scale, what could be the potential impact of this new mindset on the political space? If you teach people how to think out of the box at work, you can't expect them to not apply their new skillset to other areas of their lives, i.e. redesign the administrative and political system.

      And this may not happen in an incremental manner, but potentially in a disruptive way, which links back to your point about social stability. Is this a reason to believe that we are still a long way from seeing China become an innovative nation on a par with, say, the United States?

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks Julien for the great point! It's indeed a dilemma for the government. Their economic goal and societal goal are inherently conflicting - the former requires critical thinking, while the latter requires obedience and unquestioned belief.

      However, we already see changes in many schools today especially in wealthier cities, not mandated by government or school principles, but driven by a new generation of teachers and parents with very different mindsets. From their own experience, they know the problems in the school system, understand skills are critical today to be successful in career, and therefore they want their kids or students to be educated differently. Yesterday I had an online chat with a school teacher who just graduated from university last year, and she told me she had been trying the student-centric pedagogies in her classroom, encourage independent thinking and group discussion, and most parents supported her. In the beginning she got a lot of pressure from the school principle whose KPI is primarily linked to the testing score and graduation rate, but later it turned out her students actually also performed better in testing, and the pressure was gone.

      On the other hand, there will probably be more and more business innovations in China, but I don't think there will be many "raw" technological innovations here, primarily because almost all universities in China today are industry-focused rather than research-focused...

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Thanks Alex! One question I keep asking myself: to what extent are those changes actually influenced by ideas brought to China by either Chinese people educated abroad or Chinese people working and living abroad who kept personal ties with friends, family or colleagues back in China? And to what extent do Chinese people living in China look up information outside of China on those topics? Who are the "boundary spanners" in China?

      Author's profile photo Witalij Rudnicki
      Witalij Rudnicki

      Btw, has anyone tried and can share experience with Coursera, edX, Udacity? Are these pure-for-money initiatives, or have some deeper education mission as well? #justcurious

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      I am currently enrolled in Udacity Statistics 101 class because I wanted a refresher on stats. It's a free class. Good quality teachers. Very gradual progression, a bit too slow for me at the start. I enjoy being right every time but didn't learn anything in the first few units. These initiatives are definitely larger than money-making initiatives. Actually, I would rather call the existing universities money-makers, especially top-ranked ones who make a business of selling a brand rather than an education.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      In recent years some media has raised a new voice that more and more American parents and academic researchers become admiring at the effectiveness of Chinese-styled education. We have to see that the so-called "high score yet low ability" education has a bright side - it provides students an opportunity of learning in a systemic methodology from pre-school though college, which is crucial to empower them to do academic or scientific researches. This relates to abroad students and Chinese people currently working in America.

      Low ability is true. Most Chinese are incapable of building and decorating their own hourses, nor repairing their own cars and motocycles. If they don't really enjoy such stuff, why not give them to those who need such a job?

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Yes, I followed the debate that followed the release of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" last year. Very interesting, and it may indeed be a superior approach to developing skills and increasing knowledge that are more on the side of rote learning than creative thinking. The educational system in Europe a couple of generations back was not terribly different. I guess the question is, do you need to teach creativity from a very early age, or is "creative thinking" something than can be learnt later in life, after all the "basic" knowledge has been absorbed in a more traditional way?