PLA is no solution for army of jobless graduates
More than 6 million mainland students will graduate this summer, joining the estimated 1 million college-leavers from last year who are still looking for work. At the same time, the mainland's universities are in debt to the tune of 500 billion yuan (HK$567 billion). In fact, it is rather more than that - this figure, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, doesn't include loans taken out since the end of 2006.
The debt has been acquired mostly since 1998, when the higher education system began to undergo its own version of the boom that saw Shenzhen go from a fishing village to a metropolis in a decade. With the government proclaiming that education was a passport out of poverty, the percentage of school-leavers enrolling in universities jumped from less than 10 per cent in 1998, to 23 per cent 10 years later. To cope with that growth, the colleges had to borrow from the banks.
Last year, there were 180 million students on the mainland. Even in times of prosperity, that makes for far more graduates than are needed. In a recession, it means that families are facing up to the unpalatable fact that the money they spent on educating their only child doesn't guarantee them a job of any sort, let alone one that holds the prospect of a graduate-level salary.
Beyond mouthing platitudes about making it a priority to find the college-leavers work, the government has been silent on what to do about the graduate glut. One delegate at the National People's Congress, though, did come up with a novel proposal - that university courses be extended to five years, with the extra year for military training. His argument was that this would give students extra time to look for work, while also fostering patriotism and boosting the intellectual level of the People's Liberation Army.
As schemes go, it is as flawed as another delegate's idea - to hand out one-third of the stimulus package in vouchers for people to spend, as a way of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Many graduates return to universities to study for a master's degree, because undergraduate courses have become so devalued by the number of people taking them. And the notion that a year of square-bashing will be useful to either the students or the PLA is absurd.
With modern warfare a hi-tech beast, the PLA is already grappling with the problem that most of its recruits don't serve for long enough to become effective soldiers.
But if the PLA lacks skilled soldiers, it is not short of cash. Its budget was increased by almost 15 per cent at the NPC. In contrast, just 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product is spent on education, despite repeated promises to raise that to 4 per cent, the amount most developing countries spend.
Beijing has managed to get away with such a low education budget partly because the massive expansion of higher education has been funded by the universities, or rather their banks. The result is an army of unemployed graduates. Making them join the PLA is hardly a long-term solution to that.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist