Current University Students are Different

I am back from a speech in Shanghai Jiaotong University tonight.

This is the second time I visit SJTU this month.

I just observe something very different between the students of this year (especially the first year students) and the students of two years ago.

The Reform of Higher Education

The change was triggered by the recent reform of higher education. According to the students, when they enter SJTU, they don’t know their majors yet. They know which school they will go to and will study for 2 years before they were assigned a major, depending on how good their first two years are. (Correct me if I am wrong. This is what I heard, but not necessarily the truth).

This way, the first two years of university students are very different from the previous years. They have to study hard. Everyday they wake up, go to class just as middle-school students, study hard, and go back to dorm when the whole day’s study is over.

They don’t watch TV as much, and they don’t watch movie, and even fewer people find a boy/girl friends than before. Because, the major assignment is just as the second “National College Entrance Exam“.

To be short, the recent reform changed the first two years of university to continued part of middle school.

Change in Students

To be honest with my readers, and even to the students I met in the last two speech, I am very disappointed of the first year students in Jiao Tong University (I didn’t visit other universities this year yet). They look like middle-school, and behave like middle-school. The biggest difference between the current first year students and students of the same age two years ago is, they don’t show any excitement.

I am a big fan of going to universities to talk with students. I enjoy that a lot. The reason is, I found the students are full of creative ideas, and full of passion. They want to know more – they want to know everything, and that kind of passion also inspires me a lot. When I run Kijiji, we hosted about 200 speeches in many universities. Unfortunately, this was only in my memory.

The current university students I am facing are more concerned with their score than any generations before. They don’t care about many things, and — I cannot describe the feeling more exactly than just to tell you, they are exactly middle-school students to me.

The other changes are, two years ago, when there is a speech like this, the whole room (sometimes with 1000+ seats) are full of students. People from all grades gather and listen to the speeches. Recently, according to my friend who organized many event, very few people come to lecture, because everyone is busy preparing for exams. They are so busy that they even miss the campus recruiting of big or small companies. It seems nobody worries about the fact that only 30% of students can find a job in one of the best universities, like SJTU.

I don’t want to hide my disappointment of the recent reform initialized by the Ministry of Edcation.

32 Comments

  1. World Bank president Robert Zoellick told a group of reporters in Beijing yesterday that, while China has plenty of money, what it lacks is is the expertise to deal with its problems.

    He wasn’t kidding.

    The single largest constraint on the growth of companies in China is a lack of talent. China is lacking adequate pilots to fly its planes, managers to lead its enterprises, and out-of-the-box types to drive its innovative and creative industries.

    What holds true at the micro level holds is but a reflection of a broader national problem. The long-term growth of the world’s most populous nation is more threatened by its yawning talent gap than by any other single factor.

    Long term, the answer is education. But in the near and medium term, China will have to rely on a growing force of imported talent to keep the economy expanding, particularly in the high-value-added industries it needs so badly to develop before the world’s youngest nation becomes the world’s oldest.

  2. Wow. What a sad commentary on the current educational system there, Jian Shuo. I feel so sorry that the excitement for learning has perhaps (at least according to your observations) been lost in the quest for good scores on yet another high-pressure exam :-(

    My job involves working with many international students who are studying at our local community college and are applying for transfer to 4-year universities. Without exception, they are engaged, excited, and eager…and so very appreciative for the educational opportunities they are experiencing and for the help they receive from people like me in the process of achieving their goals.

    I never fail to be impressed by their accomplishments.

    Here they are, thousands of miles away from home, doing college level work in a language they were not born speaking. Simply amazing!

    What a shame if what you are seeing is true :-(

    As mentioned by commenter wy, I understand the need for an educated work force, but such intense and focused education, at the expense of a well-rounded personal life, seems very short-sighted to me.

    Hopefully this interesting dialog will include additional input from other observers. It’s probably too much to hope that very many current university students actually take time off from their studies to read your blog, but it would be most informative to hear from any readers who are in that category!

  3. wy,

    The world bank comment has nothing to do with JianShuo’s post. That is what the world bank says to every country. The world bank would disappear if they could not convince other countries that they needed outside help (and interference). You should read “confessions of an economic hitman”.

    The idea that there is a “talent gap” in China is absurd, and is not substantiated by JianShuo’s post. As he mentions, 30% of SJTU graduates cannot find jobs. SJTU grads blow away anything that comes from American universities (and 80% of advanced math and science degrees in American institutions go to asian nationals anyway). The problem is that we cannot hire them fast enough. It is a talent glut, not a talent gap.

  4. What you are describing reminds of how shocked I was by the young adults in Suzhou. In Suzhou, every day during weekdays during the school season, I saw large numbers of young adults just hanging out in various gathering spots. I asked several people, are these students? No. Do they have jobs? No. What do they do? Just hang out with friends.

    People explained that the school system is so competitive at every stage, that when this kids don’t make it to the next level of school then they are out. They explained that these kids could not get good jobs, and they didn’t like the job the government could assign to them, so they just live off of their parents. Their parents have money.

    So I asked, why don’t they read some books, or start a business, or invent something? Learn a skill? Go help poor people, teach little kids, do something useful?

    I mean, they are 20-something years old, this is the time in their life when they can build a foundation. And if they have someone to pay for their food anyway, that gives them more freedom to learn whatever they want. But people explained, these kids believe that they already lost the lottery by not getting in the best schools, and not getting the best jobs. They cannot imagine that they could get a better life outside of the huge system. And they think if they started a business, there are a million other, hungrier people who will compete with them. So they all have this terrible sense of hopelessness.

    I asked, why do their parents let them do this? If you love a child, you want him to be able to stand on his own, right? They answered, parents want their children to be happy and not have a crappy job. I asked, why does the government allow this? These are healthy, smart kids from good families. They could contribute a lot to society instead of just hanging out. People answered, it’s the government’s fault, for making the educaton system like that.

    Anyway, I agree with your point about the system. All these kids believe that their only possibilities in life will come from getting into the top of the school, so that is the only thing they think about. Then, when they finally stop climbing to the top of the school, they don’t know what to do.

  5. Joshua Allen, Good point. The blog post, however, says 30% of the graduates can find jobs. Or 70% cannot.

    In this information age, it’s less important to study and memorize everything. Every bit of information you need is one Google click away. It is much more important have creativity.

  6. For most part, the Chinese system is very good at cranking out test/exam busters.

    The kids parents did half of the thinking for them, when it comes to creativity, there is not much left.

    If you give them a pencil, they can draw a dot. If you give them a hammer, they don’t know what to do with it.

  7. The Ministry of Education sounds exactly like Ministry of Magic if you are a Harry Potter fan

  8. It’s quite clear Joshua Allen has never stepped into a Chinese university or at the very least talked to a recent Chinese university graduate..talent glut? You gotta be kidding me. Chinese employers themselves complain about the quality of Chinese uni graduates for godsake!

  9. the chinese economy has to create 10 million jobs a year just to keep up with the growing graduate workforce. with the flood of foreigners taking up local jobs (many foreigners work on ‘local’ salaries, not fat expat packages) this just cuts into the job market for Chinese grads as well.

  10. After working for 3 years with students in over 15 of the best universities in China i am still struggling to find anyone with any creativity, innovation or professional skills (noted that western concepts of professional skills are different to chinese). Even if you talk to someone like IBM with no lack of applications for their jobs, they still cannot find good people. Instead they just waste more money and time sifting through those thousands of applications trying to find the half decent ones.

    Besides, once you get someone that is good you have to pay them massive salaries, otherwise someone else will poach them.

  11. Why don’t you call me? I haven’t met you for a long period. It’s a chance that we can have a chat. Next time, if you go to SJTU, please contact me.

  12. whatsoever, everything will be OK and there will always be students with enthusiasm, creative ideas and endeavor to achieve their ideal.

  13. In the end what we get are universities producing students with good results but without passion in what they are persuing.

    I rather they just give up and do something they like. At least it would maintain their curiosity and interest.

    A young man without curiosity and interest in life might as well be dead.

  14. Wow, I found this post incredibly interesting. I’ve had some great experience working with Shanghai Jiaotong grads and sounds like this change is for the worse. Is there any way that companies can “adopt” an undergraduate and provide some more exposure to ideas, people, and work that can get them excited about the future? Maybe a small, not too intensive internship or co-op program would help broaden these kids horizons…they are among the best and the brightest and deserve to be passionate about what they are doing!

  15. To make things even worse, many university start to prohibit students from internship.

  16. I agree with jianshuo’s attitude that it’s not right for the university students spend too much energy on their pure studies, though I doubt some of the data given by jianshuo.I’m myself a postgraduate students in Tongji University, and I can see students in a junior grade than me spending all their time on study in order to get the scholarship,which is added to 13,000

    due to the latest reform.I feel pity for them.

  17. There is really a “talent gap” in China. It is impressive to work here, and see the very low working level of the people.

    Most of the people do not care about the company, do not think of the consequences of the policies, can not apply a process, or propose anything to improve the efficiency.

    And many have kids reactions. Studying that much and having so few independence and so few socialization is not good for china futures.

    Students should learn less by heart, and more learn to think by themselves, and to see the different points of view of a Problem, keep free time to enjoy their life, and learn how to communicate and live with others.

    To dezza: you speak about 10millions then Foreigner taking the job of Chinese… maximum foreigner take a few dozen thousands a year.

    Taking the Job of Chinese? I remember you that foreign companies employ millions of Chinese through China. And if companies take foreigners at a local salary it is that most of them can bring more value.

    If so many foreigner complain about Chinese student/employee level, it should be a reason. The foreigner going to other countries do not complain that much…

    886

  18. It is very interesting that companies are complaining that they can not find good people, while students are complaining that they cannot find a job. There is a big gap, and I would say it is due to the current educational system.

  19. Have anybody noticed that the world and regional ranking of SJTU and other Chinese Universities are surging due to “modernization” according to the Chinese Official Delegation who visited my university two months in Canada.

    http://ed.sjtu.cn/rank/2007ARWU2007TOP500LIST.htm

    I know JianShuo does not pay too much attention to the ranking, but someone in the Education Ministry thinks otherwise and will persist in present course.

  20. @stephen, many people want to simplify things. Ranking is a great way to simplify many many factors into one number.

  21. it seems it’s the people in the ministry of education who think like kids. so they are trying to educate the students in the “kid’s way”

  22. What I’m wondering about in this context is in how far Jiaoda or Beida or Qinghua grads are really different than grads from non-top universities. Do they have a wider range of knowledge? Or deeper knowledge? Better hard skills? Or better soft skills? In my humble opinion, their only additional asset is a higher proficiency of the English language. Pls correct me if I’m wrong. I’d be glad if someone could briefly outline the added-value that grads from Chinese top universities can offer compared to “ordinary” grads.

  23. @DB, the key philosophy of current “Top University” is to prepare students for academic research while others focus on job market. That makes the difference.

  24. Thx, Wang Jianshuo! I didn’t know that. But I assume your statement reflects the traditional and official differentiation. I doubt that this version still holds true in the present society since top university grads are much more preferred by recruiters than their peers from non-top universities.

    I can’t comment on the thesis that today’s university students are different than their predecessors. But I’d like to underscore one point which I believe is a fundamental obstacle when assessing a Chinese graduate from a foreign company’s POV.

    Foreign MNCs complain about a talent gap in China. But usually they can’t access the whole labour market for there are skilled people with insufficient English language skills. I know that one large German company attaches huge importance on English skills, and it’s quite common for them to hire a candidate mainly because his English skills are superior than those of another applicant who might be stronger in other areas. Imo, this is economical nonsense.

    To shed a bit more light on my thesis, I’d like to name Yang Yuanqing, Chairman of the Board of the Lenovo Group, as an example. He is without doubt a great businessman in China. But when he began his career, he was an introverted person who barely spoke even one word of English. I think this would have already disqualified him for any job in a foreign MNC, let alone for a job as a manager. But he was a well-educated and knowledgable person, an expert engineer able to foresee upcoming trends. Lenovo recognized his talent and potential, and under the guidance of his mentor and then-chairman Liu Chuanzhi, who even talked Yang out of his plans to leave Lenovo to study in the US, Yang rose to the top of the company and eventually succeeded Liu as chairman. In any foreign company, Yang’s career would have been impossible. When watching Lenovo’s IR events, you can easily notice that he still is neither fluent in English nor very outgoing and hence does not correspond to a typical Western manager profile.

    Anyway, I firmly believe there’s no doubt that he would also have added value to a foreign company in China. But imagine a job interview (in the 1980s) involving a foreigner who does his part of the interview in English, then the result is quite predictable. Now getting back to the above-mentioned obstacle, the key questions remains: “Should someone like Yang have been or be considered a talent?”

  25. dezza, russiandude: I work with MSFT and am very familiar with the situation for hiring Chinese grads at places like Sun, Google, etc. as well. The truth is, we cannot hire SJTU grads fast enough. It is a talent glut. There is a talent gap in people of the level of a Kai-Fu or a Li Gong, who have senior level international experience. But for college grads, there is a serious talent glut. The reason grads cannot find jobs is because there are not enough jobs.

    I do not know a single MNC who complains of a talent shortage in China; that is insane for you to even say such a thing. We are lobbying US Government to provide more and better visas because there is a HUGE talent gap in the USA. The reason people cannot find jobs in China is because there are more qualified workers than there are jobs. There are not enough jobs, because of the reasons I already explained in my first comment, and because we cannot grow fast enough. Look at any MNC in China such as Google, Yahoo, MSFT. They are hiring as fast as they can bring people on-board. There is a limit to how fast you can bring aboard talented people.

  26. I still remember when I went to MIT for the first time. Not as freshmen but to the department of advanced engineering studies. A god place to go to for working people who want to extend their knowledge in new areas.

    In my application form I filled as many subjects as I could, but then the director told me to take just a few. When I asked why he answered me, “You need time to discover new things, if you take so many you will not have time for anything”.

    I think is a mistake to make a educational system just for passing exams. You get only people that are good at passing… exams. No innovation, no new ideas.

    Also think it is extremely damaging to promote excessive elitism. They should take a look at the system in Germany. There you have a lot of options to make a career: vocational training, technical school and university schools. Anyone should have the opportunity to go as far as he/she can go according to his/her capabilities and wishes.

    I fear more than one Einstein or Da Vinci is falling through this exam hell system… ;-)

  27. @ Joshua Allen: I wonder what you mean by “limit” and what type of applicant you consider a talent. I have worked with three German companies in China, and all of them had one common problem: Most vacancies were filled (based on this observation, your statement that there are not enough jobs is right), but almost none of the employees could be considered a talent. Most of them only carried out orders given by superiors. Initiative, proactive suggestions for process improvements, sparking creative ideas were virtually zero.

    As long as there’s no other choice, you must fill the empty spots with what you get. You can’t leave them vacant. But that doesn’t mean that all your hirings are “talents”. It takes an eternity to even discover a talent. So in this sense, yes, there is a limit on how fast you can find talents. And that means, the quantity of talent is insufficient. Otherwise recruiters wouldn’t even have to interview applicants anymore, but could instead just take some employment contracts to the campus and go for signature-hunting.

    As for your US example: Sure, in every country, there are extraordinarily talented people. And every company in developed countries welcomes them. However, that example only tells us that there is a talent gap in the US. It provides no information as to whether there is a talent gap or a talent glut in any country other than the US.

  28. hi,jianshuo.

    it’s my first time to here,i’m very glad!

    i saw you in this party , you’re very young and kindly!

    now,i also a student,and english level is very poor and i want to learn with you by jianshuo’s blog.

  29. Jianshuo, we (kango) are recruiting college interns recently. I have one of my previous STJU intern posted an ad on the BBS and within 24 hours, I received 20+ applications from all the top Us in Shanghai.

    One interesting fact is that none of these applications is from a sophomore. We talked about this situation and don’t understand why (the job requirement is “good English + 20 hrs a week”). Your post explained why in some way:

    1. College students (year 1 and year 2) are less matured today and they are not ready to pay attention to the “career” board of a forum;

    2. The university class work has taken up most of their time.

    Anyway, we are open to hire some sophomores and help them to explore outside the classes and campuses.

  30. Need do slightly revise my previous statement. There is a talent glut in terms of highly specialized experts (computer experts, chemical engineers, medical scientists etc.). No wonder HiTech companies primarily looking for R&D staff have objected to the talent gap thesis.

    However, if you look for generalists with management skills, I stick to my initial statement: There is an alarming talent gap.

  31. to Guo Min: SJTU has many courses than any other universities like Fudan.

    If you want a person to have an internship for 3days/week or more, it can be assured that students will lose some course educations.

  32. @ a SJTU student,

    Happy new year to you. I am a co-worker of Guo Min. We are not interested in hurting anyone’s education by having them take on too much internship work. We will try to make sure that we ask students to consider their course load when making commitments to working during school. BTW, Ms. Guo is also a former SJTU student, and we have already had some great opportunities to work with SJTU students. Enjoy your holiday!

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