Editorial: China’s Economy Has Grown Up. Its Education System Needs to Keep Up
Once again, it’s that time of the year when schools start. Recently, China’s education sector has undergone a series of changes that have triggered a heated discussion. In July, the Central Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the General Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China jointly released the “Opinions on Further Reducing the Burden of Homework and Off-Campus Training for Students at the Compulsory Education Stage,” putting the brakes on the country’s burgeoning private tutoring market. On Aug. 30, the Ministry of Education issued the “Notice on Strengthening the Management of Examinations in Compulsory Education Schools,” stating that no written exams should be arranged for first and second graders in primary schools. A series of new regulations will gradually be put in place, covering the areas of “gaokao,” or the national college entrance examination, and university education, in addition to compulsory education.
Education is the key to a nation’s sustained prosperity. Since the reform and opening-up, the education sector has helped China train hundreds of millions of competent people, which has been hugely beneficial to its economic and social growth. However, some problems in the education sector are still very prominent, particularly the long lags in implementing institutional reforms and the distortions caused by excessive commercialization. The exam-oriented system and the existing educational inequality have been widely criticized. The resulting heavy academic burden has made life miserable for primary and secondary school students, as well as their parents. Moreover, graduates have difficulty finding jobs, while employers also struggle to find workers with the right skill set. Despite the fact that both the Chinese government and society have invested a great deal in the education sector, it has not made anyone satisfied. That is a problem that deserves some reflection. The central government has pointed out that China needs to resolutely address the deep-rooted problem of grades, college entrance, diplomas, papers or titles being the only criterion for education evaluation, thus eliminating the long-term problem of education evaluation standards. To this end, strict measures and policies are essential.
The series of strict regulations recently issued for the education sector can be seen as a move in this direction.
Meanwhile, it is also important to focus on the long-term impact of education and respond to the emerging demands of the new era. The global landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. China is striving to realize its second centenary goal — to become a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic and culturally advanced by 2049. In this context, education should be aimed at building a modernized society and promoting well-rounded human development and all-around social progress. Many challenges still exist; for example, China’s population will soon reach its peak; new technologies such as artificial intelligence will, without doubt, reshape the economy and society. Hence, specific measures and policies can be effective only if they are formulated with a long-term goal in mind.
In other words, education must withstand the test of time. Ultimately, education is about fostering the mind, a process that never stops. Generally, it takes a long time before we can see the full impact — positive or negative — of a policy similar to the one-child policy. However, if we deviate from the path we have set, the consequences could be way more severe and a lot harder to address. Therefore, policymakers have to be very careful when implementing new education policies and respect the educational practice that has been carried on for thousands of years.
The goal of education is to turn one into a good person, not to turn a person into an object for doing a particular kind of work. Education is about promoting the all-round development of human beings, not just producing workers or increasing human capital. However, there is an urgent need to fix the Chinese education system, even from a utility perspective. Skilled people produced by the education system must be in a position to adapt to China’s economic and social transformation and promote further progress. No country can achieve economic development without a sound education system, which is fundamental to its economic patterns and industrial structure. In Germany, the industrial success is inseparable from its well-developed vocational education system. Over the past 40 years, China’s massive population has brought the country a favorable demographic dividend, which has been the main driving force of its economic growth and has underpinned China’s rise in the manufacturing industry. However, in this new era, competition has become global, and the domestic economy is being transformed with the goal of building an innovative country.
All of these have led to demands for more and better education. China’s education model has proven to be effective in passing on knowledge and skills on a large scale, which was appropriate for China’s economy in the early catch-up phase. However, China is now at the forefront of the world in some sectors, and to further advance and avoid the risk of “being hit in the throat,” as core technologies are in the hands of others, the innovation skills of professionally trained people have been given utmost importance. The systems regarding the curriculums, teaching instructions, textbooks and administration will need to be updated in accordance with the new changes.
Some scholars argue that Chinese education has “high average and small variance,” with very few outstanding and innovative people. If the status quo remains, we would have no chance to build China into an innovative country or develop our world-class basic research capabilities.
With China’s service industry gradually overtaking manufacturing to become the largest sector in the economy, there is a continuous increase in income per capita. It is also accompanied by the significant changes in citizens’ attitudes. Cross-national studies have found out that the increase of income changes what people consider most valuable. When income is relatively low, people look up to material civilizations and thus place more emphasis on increasing their wealth. However, when their income grows, they will gradually embrace a post-materialist mindset. This natural change is a trend that the Chinese education system should try to adapt to. Ideas such as democracy, freedom, equality and justice are all core socialist values. They are also in line with the common values of all mankind that China advocates. Once engraved in people’s minds, these ideas will shape their personalities and thus give a huge boost to economic and social growth. These ideas should not only be reflected in the teaching content but also in the education system. Institutional deficiencies such as formality and excessive bureaucracy still exist in Chinese schools, especially in higher education institutions. The current cumbersome reimbursement procedure for research expenditure is a classic example. This current situation is far removed from the modern ideas mentioned earlier.
China is currently striving to foster a new environment in an all-round opening up. Education is no exception. Opening up is an essential component of China’s education sector. Strong educational ties have been created between Chinese and foreign educational institutions, ranging from primary schools to universities, through academic exchanges, talent exchange programs and cooperation in running schools. Overseas returnees to China have also contributed directly to the country’s robust, long-term economic development. Nowadays, countries are competing globally to attract talented professionals, driving global talent flows. Industries such as communications and microchips are even more immersed in global networks. For China to achieve the goal of forming a community with a shared future through global exchanges, Chinese education still has a long way to go and needs to open its door wider to the world.
In September 1983, Deng Xiaoping proposed the principle of “Three Orientations,” which means “education should be oriented toward modernization, the whole world and the future.” This principle remains the proper guideline for the Chinese education system. At this critical moment in China’s economic and social transformation, the Chinese central government has repeatedly reaffirmed that education is a top development priority, which essentially means that the modernization of education is vital to support the country’s goal of modernization. For this to be possible, efforts from the whole society are required, especially the educational departments in China.
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