Myopic vision of education

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2006, 12:00am

In Anshun city, Guizhou, in July 2001, 16-year-old twin sisters killed their parents with rat poison. The reason: they had failed to earn acceptable high-school exam marks and were afraid of being yelled at. They took each parent's mobile phone, 2,000 yuan from their pockets and went out on the town.

A teenage boy in Hebei, with the help of a friend, strangled his sleeping mother with a rope because she insisted he study after school and not visit video-game parlours. In another Hebei case, a teenage boy crushed his mother's head with a steel bar as she slept, after being disciplined for not attending school.

There are countless cases like these - but how many have gone unreported? Citizens and officials are frustrated. Both point to a failed education system for China's disintegrating intellectual order and rise in teenage crime.

After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping initiated education reform with the words 'kexue jishu shi shengchan li', meaning 'scientific skill is productive power'. Since then, education, gross domestic product and money have become synonymous. After 25 years of reforms, the Ministry of Education laments the gap between China and developed nations in science and research education. Three failed systems have been cited as the cause.

First, education is commercial. Today, it is all about money - and it is a huge industry. In 1992, Deng convinced the country that making money was the be-all and end-all for the nation and its people. When government economists slated 'education as a new economic growth engine', they were referring to its contribution to GDP, not its value in nurturing a national talent pool. Education makes money for a student who gets good grades, so he makes money for the university by buying his place and then paying professors to give higher grades, so the logic goes. Everyone benefits from the cash cycle. Professors now view research as either a sideline or a hobby.

Second, China has an oversupply of incompetent graduates who lack skills. This is because vocational institutions have been upgraded into universities, and most are not up to national standards. The Ministry of Education cannot regulate the regions effectively, so local officials upgrade institutions into universities as political-showcase achievements. It allows the former institutions to charge and spend more money.

Most graduates cannot get work and businesses cannot find skilled recruits. In addition, graduates are arrogant, incompetent and labelled xue wu suoyong feiliao (uselessly educated rubbish). As one Beijing manager said: 'The more education you have the more stupid you become', mirroring Mao Zedong's adage: 'The more you read the more stupid you get.'

Signs at job fairs say: 'Tsinghua or Peking University graduates - Please Do Not Apply Here!' These top graduates can only enter the government bureaucracy, where lifetime employment is guaranteed if you heap endless praise on superiors.

Third, upgraded universities have plunged into mergers and acquisitions, adopting a bigger-means-better approach. Local governments are building big campuses, but they lack a substantial faculty.

China's impending crisis is a dearth of competent thinkers, and government planners are worried. Although the issue has attracted high-level attention, progress appears to be slow. President Hu Jintao said: 'Streamlining and improving construction of teenagers' thinking and morality is a central-government strategic decision.'

Meanwhile, law-enforcement agencies say teenagers account for 70 per cent of the nation's rising criminal cases. An education ministry study highlights one factor that puts Chinese students ahead of those in other nations: China's student thinking and outlook 'is the most shortsighted in the world'.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation