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Emma Moore: China’s Education Hell

China’s Education Hell

By Emma Moore

In Japan they call it juken jigoku or “examination hell”. Starting with their mothers playing Mozart CDs to fire up their unborn children’s neurons, Japanese children’s lives are often focused exclusively on passing a series of increasingly important exams. The Japanese have long gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure their children get into a ‘good’ a university in order to land the ‘good’ job this will most likely lead to. In China, some pregnant women go even further. Caesarean births increase in August to ensure babies are born before August 31, which will help to “secure their child’s future education,” according to Xinhua news agency. The Chinese school year begins on September 1 and school age is calculated from that date. Children who turn six before then can start school a year earlier than those born after August 31.

And so it begins. The Chinese don’t have a name for “examination hell”, but they sure know about it. And like so often in China, the situation is even worse than worst-case overseas scenarios. At least in Japan, those who make it into a sought-after university can pat themselves on the back and take it comparatively easy. It’s said Japanese universities are hard to get into but easy to get out of. Leaving university without graduating is rare, although degrees often serve as little more than evidence of students’ ability to cram.

A bit if a diversion, but here is my favourite Japanese “examination hell” story: A former Japanese colleague of mine studied hard at school and sat several different university entrance exams. He did quite well but not as well as he had hoped, leaving him with two choices. Either he could take a place at prestigious University A and study an unpopular major, or he could enroll at less esteemed University B and take the subjects of his choice. After much anguish he opted for University A and graduated with a degree in Swahili. Yes, really. He’s now a mid-level manager at an English language school. When I asked him if he thought he would ever visit Africa he doubled up laughing. Things are changing, but in Japan the name of your alma mater counts for more in job interviews than your education.

Back to China…Government policy has made one-child families the norm. In a family of several children some are naturally more academically inclined than others, just as others are more sporty, arty, or musical. The one-child policy has inevitably led to enormous pressures on Chinese children as parents treat their sole offspring like several children rolled into one. ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome is one effect of this excessive attention, with some psychologists predicting a generation of overweight, selfish narcissists. A more immediately obvious effect is the huge pressure on kids of all socio-economic backgrounds to perform well at school. Not just well, outstandingly well.

“Chinese university students often have a lot of stress. What are some ways people can reduce stress?” This was one of the questions I had to ask university students in an English-speaking contest recently. “If university students feel stress, they must be worried about their future careers or about failing exams. Therefore they should study harder.” This was hardly the response that I was expecting but perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised to hear variations on it from several students.

Chinese students study incredibly hard. They study as if their lives depend on it, as they often do. Not only their lives but also those of their families. With social security and private insurance schemes in their infancy, Chinese children are still expected to take care of ageing family members. As China lurches from socialism to capitalism, or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, as the government prefers to put it, this burden is growing. Soaring medical fees and rent or mortgage payments in place of former free state-owned housing and cheap doctor’s bills require a well-paid job. So does simply keeping up with the Wangs.

Traditionally, a good education was seen as a way out of peasant drudgery, and those who passed the elite Imperial Examinations were guaranteed good government jobs for life. Heavy spending on children’s education is still considered a sound investment against future money worries. In 2001, 1.15 million students graduated, this year the figure was 4.13 million. The workplace is swamped with grads, driving down graduate wages and forcing many to take low paid manual jobs. Despite recent government efforts encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, the number of new white collar jobs lags far behind the number of grads each year and China’s main industry remains manufacturing-based. Academic investment returns are slumping as the cost of university tuition fees soar.

The simple answer is to upgrade your degree to gain an edge in the graduate marketplace. A bachelor’s degree has become the equivalent of a high school diploma just half a generation ago. Master’s degrees have become de rigueur and the number of doctorates handed out every year is soaring. It’s enough to make this laowai (foreigner) feel like an undeserving slob. Not that a superior degree alone is any assurance of a comfortable future. The educational magazine I work for receives a stream of anguished letters from students aged from six to twenty-six begging for tips to become class monitors, English captains, gym class leaders, science club deputies and any other minor student leadership roles you can imagine. These are not jobs for teachers’ pets and swots, down the track they could tip the employment-unemployment scales.

This August, some 30 per cent of new grads were out of work or underemployed, which goes some way to explaining the stress reduction technique of working harder. With undergrad tuition fees of around 4,000-5,000 yuan per year (NZ$800-1,000) and an average urban wage of 900 yuan per month, it doesn’t take a PhD in accounting to figure out how much many families are sacrificing to send their kids to university.

The least they could expect in return is a reasonably well-paid job at the end. What many are getting is a useless certificate to hang on the wall. Some are not even getting that. This summer there was an outcry over reports in the Chinese media that some universities were refusing to hand out degrees to graduates who had not been able to find jobs. The universities did not want these apparent failures to tarnish their reputations. It’s not just a matter of too many grads, not enough jobs. There are also serious problems with the degrees themselves. Although the universities are flinging their doors wider to more students and their fees every year, their modus operandi is stuck in the past.

My Chinese teacher studied computer programming at university. In her freshman year (American college lingo is used here) she realized she had no interest in working with computers for the rest of her life. Too bad for her. Once students have enrolled in a course of study, it’s often impossible to swap. Like millions of others, my teacher has an expensive degree she has no use for.

In a survey by the China Youth Daily newspaper earlier this year, a startling 34.7 per cent of 8,777 respondents said what they learnt at university was not worth the time and money. About 51.5 per cent said they had learnt nothing practical and almost 40 per cent said they couldn’t get a job with a bachelor’s degree.

All those years of long school days, high-pressure school exams, extra classes, late nights swotting, family debt and stress for naught.

As if all that weren’t enough, take a look at the uniforms millions of kids have to wear right through school. Freezing in winter and stifling in summer, these shell-suit polyester horrors make my old school kilt look flattering and hip.

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Frumpy on teenage girls…

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And not much better on boys… (Photos taken at a junior high school near my office)


Emma Moore is a Kiwi expat living and working in China

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