“Excuse me, but given your stellar background — a bachelor’s degree in economics and mathematics from Columbia University — why did you switch to linguistics? It’s such a waste of your education!”
This was the first question most students asked me at the cognitive science department of the university in Shanghai that I’m visiting to gain lab experience.
While job prospects are an important factor everywhere in the world when choosing what to major in at university, the Chinese obsession is far greater than what I’ve seen anywhere else. All of the graduate students I’ve spoken with in China wanted a master’s degree for the sole purpose of becoming more competitive on the job market.
And almost all of the ones in the cognitive science department ended up there not out of personal interest, but because they couldn’t get into the more competitive fields, such as mathematics or economics.
To better understand the Chinese higher education system, it is important to start with the controversial national college entrance exam — the gaokao — which decides what university and major a high school graduate can pursue.
Since what a student can study is based off their performance on the gaokao, many people criticize the exam for effectively dumping a bunch of children in fields they have no interest in.
A recent survey by the Chinese Ministry of Education reported that nearly 70 percent of the students know very little about the major they sign up for. The decision-making process appears to be more blind than informed, swayed by popular opinions and individual test scores.
However, in recent years there have been efforts aimed at curbing this problem. One of China’s top schools, Zhejiang University, has been experimenting with the American model by placing certain students in a pilot program where they can choose their major after one or two years of general education.
But not everyone thinks these reforms will be effective. My friend Ming — a graduate of Zhejiang University and now a master’s student at the university I’m visiting — called Zhejiang’s new system “a mini-gaokao.”
“Most students still go for the major that earns the highest salary, which in my discipline is mathematics. Of course, due to limited resources, not everyone can study math, and so we’re ranked by grades. Only the students with the best grades can major in math, while people like me,” he laughed bitterly, “had to choose psychology. I mean, the subject isn’t so bad. It just won’t get me a job.”
Ming’s experience isn’t uncommon. Several decades ago an undergraduate degree was enough to guarantee a good job, but the modern-day competition has meant that even master’s degrees are beginning to lose their prestige.
A student who has been rejected by their first choice may be approached by the less popular departments to fill their spots. Since a master’s degree makes a candidate more competitive on the job market, many students accept such offers without caring which department it is and whether the degree is at all of interest to them.
As Li, another graduate student in the cognitive science department, told me: “All I need is the name of a prestigious university on my resume. It will get me through the screening process at companies.”
The system is a vicious cycle. The most popular programs are overcrowded, while the less competitive ones are left with mediocre students who have poor grades and little interest in the subject.
However, it takes intellectual curiosity to carry out quality research and ask valuable questions. In the weekly meetings at the university I’m visiting in Shanghai, a student will typically present a recent influential paper to the group and introduce the latest developments in the field.
Unfortunately, their English is often too poor to even understand the paper. After a confusing presentation, all of the other students stay silent. Only the professor will ask questions, most of which clarify definitions and concepts because the presentation was so unclear.
This is a stark contrast to my experience with academia in the United States, where presentations are clear and organized, and students normally drive discussions with fascinating questions, original ideas, and critical thinking.
It is precisely because these departments in China get such poor, uninterested students that they are unlikely to produce impressive graduates, which further discourages talented undergraduates from applying — many of whom decide instead to pursue their education abroad.
There’s a historic reason why the Chinese view education as the primary means to wealth and power. In Imperial China the only way for common people to climb the social ladder was through exams. Only people with the top exam scores were selected as government officials.
Filled with cliches and propaganda, these exams were designed not only to select the best candidate for the post, but also to curb critical and original thinking in the country’s intellectuals.
The modern gaokao is similarly portrayed as a stepping stone to greater income and power. Although the form and content of the exam have changed, the idea remains. Even the term used in Imperial China for the student with the highest mark — zhuangyuan — remains in use today for the gaokao.
Chinese students are also more susceptible to outside pressures and influence than young adults in Western countries. It is not uncommon that if a student with high marks wants to choose an “unpractical” subject such as history or philosophy, their parents and teachers will question why they are wasting such high grades.
The competitiveness of the gaokao, the deep-rooted traditions of viewing exams as a means to better socioeconomic status, and the heavy pressures placed on the students all contribute to a cracked higher education system in China.
Merely scratching the surface and adopting an American system of choosing majors — as Zhejiang University is trying to do — is far from enough. It takes time to invest in improving the quality of education and attracting talent, and it takes even longer to change a mindset. But such efforts will prove worthwhile in the long run.
The students at the university in Shanghai were puzzled upon learning that I came from an economics and math background and had switched to linguistics — effectively the opposite of most people they knew. “You’re very brave. It’s very rare to pursue your dreams in China,” they told me.
(Header image: A student stands in front of a poster during a college recruitment fair in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, June 12, 2012. You You/IC)