During the Chinese Communist Party’s recent 19th National Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping stressed the role of education as a driving force for the country’s development in the future. He suggested that education should play a leading role in spearheading China’s domestic transformation, boosting its international recognition and soft power. These goals are expected to be achieved by 2049, while according to Education Minister Chen Baosheng, available data already marks substantial achievements in the field during the past years.
Beijing is currently undergoing one of the most dramatic shifts in education in international modern history. China’s universities increased from 1,022 in 2001 to 2,824 in 2014, and now host almost 37 million students — the world’s largest student population, constituting one out of five students in the world. During the height of this boom, there were claims that China builds a new university every single week.
The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that China will have the largest number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates in the world in 2030. According to the World Economic Forum, China had 4.7 million recent STEM graduates in 2016; 40 percent of Chinese graduates in 2013 finished a degree in the field. The Chinese government seeks to further boost those numbers as part of its quest to transform the country into “an innovative society” by 2020, according to “Medium- to Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology.” Beijing also envisions having at least 40 world-class universities by mid-century.
China’s growing education sector promotes its international attractiveness for foreign students. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 440,000 foreigners studied in the country in 2016, compared to only 55,000 in 2006, and the number continues to grow. Half of the students come from Belt and Road Initiative nations, cementing Beijing’s soft power outreach across Eurasia and nurturing long-standing cross-border alumni networks capable of shaping geopolitical and decision-making processes in the future.
Investing in education likewise has become a trend for the Chinese business elites. The Yidan Prize, a foundation created to promote international education set up by Tencent co-founder Chen Yidan, earlier handed out its first awards to Carol Dweck, a renowned American psychology professor, and Vicky Colbert, founder of Fundación Escuela Nueva in Colombia. The award is considered the world’s largest education prize, with laureates receiving a total $3.9 million. The Yidan Prize itself has a total endowment of $320 million, which will last for decades.
Meanwhile, China continues to send more students abroad than any other nation. According to UNESCO, over 801,000 Chinese students currently study abroad. Despite recent claims about problems that the new graduates experience upon returning to China, including a struggle to reintegrate into the local economic environment, unrealistic salary expectations, and increased competition from other graduates, the number is expected to continue growing in the upcoming years. For many in China the Western education and professional experiences continue to remain major insurances against unemployment.
While the education numbers look impressive, the country continues to experience a number of issues. Despite sweeping increases in the quality of education — when institutions have reached a medium-high level of higher education and some have climbed high to world-class standards — the old Soviet bureaucratic system persists. This requires further efforts from China to introduce a liberal arts curriculum and implement effective structures capable of shifting mindsets.
Chinese education is renowned for its rigorous curriculum and reliance on standardized scores. The importance of such tests is highlighted by the struggle that many local students undergo while preparing for gaokao, the national college entrance examination. It is an effective tool to add sets of hard skills, but not sufficient to spur the creativity, entrepreneurship, and analytical mindsets that are vital for a future workforce. While little is being done to address the issue of standardized testing now, it is expected that continuous improvements in education will ultimately perpetuate change.
China has undergone spectacular changes over the past decades, including some of the fastest transformations that the history has ever witnessed. As education continues to evolve and demand for it remains high, China’s thirst for knowledge will not stop any time soon.
Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a Moscow-based political analyst and writer. Follow him on Facebook.