CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: China's education in transition

History's repeating itself - again

Written at the Beijing airport and despatched via a for-pay wi-fi service in the BA lounge. But then I discovered another five signals and the first one I tried at random turned out to be free.

I grew up in a Nottinghamshire mining community where all school learning was by rote and the expectation was that the majority of the boys would go underground. One or two of the smartest might aspire to a job in the local co-op, government offices or utilities.

In a few families there was a dream that perhaps the youngest might escape this fate if sufficient funds could be jointly accumulated to get them educated and off to university. Quite literally, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles would club together to fund this singular enterprise. And getting into university wasn't easy - there were very few places and only the best of the best made it.

At that time the focus was on science and technology, engineering and subjects related to the direct generation of wealth. But as the society developed and grew richer the emphasis began to change with acceptance to university made much easier and government grants handed out to aid funding. At the same time there was a greater emphasis on the humanities and the support industries of law, finance, business administration and so on.

Today parts of China look like the UK of my early childhood. Only the best of the best get to university - the competition is fierce. It is also expensive to attend and the emphasis is on the subjects needed to support the rapidly growing industries.

But already in the rising middle class, there is a growing tendency to point students away from the hard science subjects and toward the support industries. So in the countryside and the small towns, the emphasis is on getting good grades and getting to university to study science, technology, engineering and industry-related subjects, whilst in the big cities parents are looking towards the law, accounting and management studies for their offspring.

According to the latest estimates out of Duke University in the US, China is graduating around 350,000 engineers and technologists every year, which is well over twice the total number of the US and UK combined. The central government of China has been reported as requiring this should be increased to around 600,000 graduates per year. To achieve this figure there already seems to have been some double accounting, calling some students engineers when they clearly are not. History really does seem to be repeating itself here faster than ever before!

When making comparisons it is difficult to get truly accurate numbers and the Duke team have been careful to try and make sure there is a level playing field with respect to what qualifies as an engineer and how they are taught and trained.

My perspective after talking with a few students concurs with that of the Duke team. It seems the Chinese education system is dominated by rote learning with little latitude for innovation and experimentation at any stage. Class sizes are very large and the system appears rigid and inflexible.

Such a system should create minds ideally aligned to production systems where innovation implies unnecessary risk! And yet all the Chinese students I have worked with outside China have soon become innovative and inventive when given the chance and the slightest example or leadership.

Talking with business leaders and company managers, it is clear they see the potential for intellectual stagnation and are keen to get into innovation in a big way. In fact, there is an overt effort with the creation of innovation centres focussed on the creation of new products.

Today this seems to be led by design rather than science, technology and engineering. Tomorrow may be a different story but it will have to start with a different approach to education - and that may well take some time!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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