China Power

The Value of Education

Can you put a price on education? One Beijing real estate professor seems to think so.

I’d like to share a memorable comment from earlier this month by a professor at Beijing Normal University. The remark is about more than just education – it has quickly become a source of entertainment among Chinese netizens, and even something of a social issue.

On 4 April, a professor at one of the university’s research centres wrote a microblog entry that was presumably meant to offer some encouragement for his students.

‘When you’re 40 years-old, don’t come and see me if your net worth isn’t 40 million yuan ($6.1 million). And don’t tell people that you were my student. To a highly-educated person, poverty means shame and failure.’

The media immediately stirred up some debate on the issue, and many members of the public who responded were quick to argue that by emphasizing money, the professor had taken education back a step or two.

The professor responded that the blog entry was a joke, a defence that prompted even more criticism. Some netizens joked that he clearly has a good grasp of how serious China’s inflation problem is, noting that as his students are mainly in their 20s, by the time they are 40 years-old, 40 million yuan would be equivalent to about 10 million yuan now.

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I don’t agree with trying to place a numerical value on education – even if a student becomes a teacher or ends up working in a shop they are still making a valuable contribution to society.

But the comments raise another issue. The professor in question is a senior official at Beijing Normal University’s real estate research centre. The university is meant to be a place for nurturing future teachers, so many are likely left wondering how it ended up specializing in real estate. China’s real estate has been dubbed ‘black gold’, and it seems now that even Beijing Normal University has been ‘polluted’ by the real estate boom.

This isn’t the first time this professor has said something unbelievable. About a year ago, he said that there was no bubble in China’s property market because demand is still high. He is also quoted as saying that people who oppose a ‘revival’ in real estate are ‘hurting national interests’. He added that sceptics about an uptick in the real estate market were ‘anti-humanity’.

The Chinese government, though, is clearly worried that there’s a real estate bubble in parts of China, a view echoed by the IMF. With this in mind, it’s difficult not to wonder what place the rosy views of the professor have at a reputable university. Maybe he’s just trying to make a name for himself. And, if that’s the goal, he’s certainly succeeded. The worrying thing is that there are plenty more like him at Chinese universities.