Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Education without thought is labor lost

By Xiong Bingqi (China Daily) Updated: 2014-02-20 07:44

The 2013 Global Talent Blue Book: Annual Report on Chinese Students Studying Abroad says the percentage of overseas Chinese students returning to the country increased by 46.56 in 2012. But 77.5 percent of the returnees who responded to a survey said their salaries were much lower than expected, with only 1.8 percent saying their pay was more than they expected.

The annual report also says that students who return from overseas need a long time to cover their education costs - 48.8 percent of the returnees who seek employment need five years or more to cover their education costs or repay their education loans. This has prompted some to say that overseas study has become a "gambling investment".

But despite the declining "investment returns", overseas studies have become increasingly popular. A survey shows that 450,000 Chinese students chose to study abroad in 2013, and the figure is likely to increase by 15 percent this year.

Seen strictly from the economic point of view, most Chinese parents should not send their children abroad for studies. For instance, tuition and living expenses abroad add up to at least 150,000 yuan ($24,735) a year, which means parents have to pay about 500,000 yuan for their children's three-year senior middle school education, with the cost of three- or four-year college education being much higher. And if their children find a job that pays 5,000 yuan a month after they return to China, they will need at least a couple of decades to cover the expenses.

But education is not only about economic returns. It has a utilitarian function; it improves students' competitive power and helps them get good jobs. But education also has the non-utilitarian function of improving students' personality and self-awareness. Education becomes money-oriented if its focus is on the utilitarian function, which is precisely the case in China today.

Given their obsession with economic returns, some local authorities think expenditure on education will neither earn them money nor improve their political performance. The reluctance of these local governments to spend on education has led to an unbalanced education system in many areas.

In the 1990s, many colleges began enrolling more students than their capacity because of the high demand for higher education. But if higher enrollment has helped accommodate more students in colleges, it has also led to a fall in the quality of higher education.

So grave is the situation that in China's central and western regions, some parents see their children's education solely from the financial perspective, with quite a few considering higher studies to be useless. They think that a student who cannot enter a key university will find it very difficult to get a good-paying job. Some believe that even completing senior middle school education is a waste of money. As a result, many students in undeveloped regions are forced to drop out of school to work in cities even before they complete the nine-year compulsory education.

Economic returns is indeed important, but education is much more than that. Education is about character building, it is about developing a person's ability to foresee events and ride above a tide. Perhaps this is why many Chinese parents are sending their children to study abroad. Perhaps these parents want their children to avoid the torture of China's exam-oriented education and build their personality in an all-round way.

According to media reports, about 20 percent of the nearly 1 million students who decide not to take the national college entrance examination every year choose to study abroad. The reports also say there will not be any reduction in the number of students studying abroad or improvement in higher education until there is a drastic change in the country's exam-oriented education system.

Chinese educators should reflect on why so many parents are sending their children to study abroad despite the high costs. They should also take measures to improve the country's education system and thus keep in China the huge amount of money parents pay for their children's overseas education.

To attract more students, the authorities should improve the quality of education they offer and take care of students' physical and mental health. The goal of education should not be high scores at the cost of sacrificing students' personality and interests. Instead, it should be the free development of students and to create a positive and healthy lifestyle for them.

The author is vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute.

(China Daily 02/20/2014 page9)

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