Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What are Chinese colleges like?

For roughly three years I had the opportunity to live and work at two colleges out here in China.  I could describe any number of observations but one that sticks out at this time is the role the Communist Party plays in curriculum.

While the days of the Little Red Book (Mao zhuxi yulu) and cult of personality may officially be in the past, the Party still maintains control over what is and is not taught in classes.

For example, at both colleges I taught at, each department had both a nominal civilian leader as well as a de facto  Party leader.  While I had little daily interaction with Party leaders (I did meet them several times a semester at faculty dinners and they were actually very friendly to me — gan bei!), this form of governance  results in both direct overt censorship and self-censorship via “chilling effects.”

And because the faculty was limited to the Party approved curriculum, this hampered the instructors ability to inject new, different and simply foreign ideas into the classroom.  Thus you cannot foster creativity in a classroom without first dealing with the elephant in the room — the entity whose presence currently engenders the status quo.

The WSJ recently published a report noting how new Chinese graduates are having a difficult time finding jobs in part because of a skillset mismatch between what they learned in college and what hiring firms currently demand.

Before quoting the paper, I wanted to share one additional anecdote that involves this skillset mismatch.  While it may be hard to believe, but I never once in all of my teaching out here have espoused my personal opinions about libertarianism to the student body.  Not only do I think it is unprofessional to do so but I think it is short sighted (e.g., I would immediately lose my job and be deported) — and would accomplish nothing because there is no legal opposition group to rally around.  Thus martyrdom for laowai (which I do not encourage anyways) is self-defeating.

With that said, each semester there were always a number of students that would for better and for worse share their thoughts about the material they were studying in other classes.  And a handful of students, those with cajones, would even mention the material by name:  Marx and Mao.

You see, like many Western colleges, Chinese students are required to take specific courses each semester — with very few electives being offered (and none sometimes offered at all).  In addition to studying subjects like Chinese and English, all students (at the colleges I taught at and most others on the mainland) require that their students take several courses on the literature and philosophy of Marx and Mao.

And while they may have been sent on a fishing expedition to get their laowai instructor to divulge (my) personal opinions, several students each semester — those with cajones (because you could be publicly reprimanded for it) — would verbally complain about having to study the works of Marx and Mao.  Or in the words of one student I had two years ago, “if it doesn’t work in practice what good is learning an [anachronistic] theory semester after semester?  How will this help us get a job?” [He tried to say anachronistic but it didn't come out that way]

So while the North American blogosphere might complain about the futility and practicality of Underwater Basket Weaving or Virtual Reality Gender Studies, the fact that 6 million Chinese graduated this past year being indoctrinated with Marx and Mao should give First World bloggers a moment of solace and perspective.

Now back to the comment my student said two years ago, how will this help them find a job?  To quote the WSJ, it does not:

“High-end jobs that should have been produced by industrialization, including research, marketing and accounting etc., have been left in the West,” said Chen Yuyu, associate professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. Referencing the trade name of Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.,the Taiwan-based company that makes gadgets for Apple Inc. and others in Chinese factories, he said, “We only have assembly lines in Foxconns.”

Solving the problem is complex, involving a gradual overhaul of China’s education system as well as efforts to add more service-sector jobs. China’s Ministry of Education in 2010 unveiled new guidelines pressing universities to shift away from their traditional focus on increasing enrollment. It is also experimenting with giving faculty greater say over curriculum and school operations, though universities remain tightly controlled by the Communist Party.

Oops.  By directly and indirectly interfering with curriculum, the Party planners have unintentionally outsource — re-sourced — high skilled jobs to the developed world (see also tangentially labor arbitrage).  This is not to say that there are not opportunities for say software programmers (I personally have about 10 business Chinese students at this time who work for a very large American semiconductor company as chipset and driver programmers in Shanghai) — but this is the exception rather than the rule.

And as the same WSJ article notes those graduates that do find jobs are not making big yuan:

A survey of more than 6,000 new graduates conducted last year by Tsinghua University in Beijing said that entry-level salaries of 69% of college graduates are lower than those of the migrant workers who come from the countryside to man Chinese factories, a figure that government statistics currently put at about 2,200 yuan ($345) a month. Graduates from lower-level universities make an average of only 1,903 yuan a month, it said.

Thus the next time you hear someone from the the Professional Protesting class such as the Occupy Wall Street movement complain about making a mere $10 an hour at Walmart, kindly explain to them that college graduates in the worlds 2nd largest economy make less than $3 an hour despite increasingly higher costs of living — which is another anecdote I can vouch for (seeing as hundreds of my former students have now graduated and began their sobering careers).

One last note

Chinese students wishing to further their education via graduate school on the mainland are required to take another lengthy entrance examination (akin to the original gaokao) in which a students knowledge of Marx and Mao are again tested.  A foreign colleague of mine has a Chinese wife who bitterly complained about having to take those portions of the test simply to apply to a grad program in translation and interpretation.  Several of her other, talented friends opted out and instead used guanxi to get government jobs.

Which brings me to this slight twist of fortunes: do you know what the #1 desirable job is now in China?  According to a recent survey from ChinaHR: working for the government — for the old fashioned Iron Rice bowl (tie fan wan) once again.


Price Tag $500K: Baltimore Schools Under Fire for Wild Spending Spree (That Included a Trip to Hooters)‏

The Baltimore school system is coming under fire after The Baltimore Sun obtained its spending reports through a Maryland Public Information Act request.

Though Americans are often told they need to pay more taxes for teachers (and “roads and bridges”), it seems as though the city of Baltimore mismanaged roughly half a million dollars of taxpayer money over the last year and a half.

The Baltimore Sun begins:

    "Despite tightening school budgets and a perpetual rallying cry for more funding, Baltimore school administrators spent roughly $500,000 during the past year and a half on expenses such as a $7,300 office retreat at a downtown hotel, $300-per-night stays at hotels, and a $1,000 dinner at an exclusive members-only club, credit card statements show.

    City school officials defend the majority of the credit card expenditures… as “the cost of doing business,” saying only a handful of “outliers” show questionable judgment or disregard for taxpayer money.

    “We are working around the clock to engage our partners and move our agenda forward,” said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. “Every transaction has a business purpose in mind.”

    Among those transactions were a $450-per-person office retreat at the downtown Hilton, during which the 16 employees of the Information Technology Department were also treated to a $500 dinner at Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao; and a $264 lunch for students at Hooter’s."

The Baltimore Sun continues:

    "A review of credit card transactions and receipts by The Sun found that the bulk of the expenditures — about $300,000, generated by 16 central office employees — were made under a new procurement-card program that has operated with virtually no controls or oversight since it began in January 2011.

    Card statements show that many of the expenditures violated the school system’s own protocols and restrictions for use of the cards, such as a prohibition on using them for travel or to buy gifts for employees....

    Still, the schools chief — whose card, sometimes used by his assistant, incurred a $66.77 charge to Victoria‘s Secret on Valentine’s Day that was later removed after the system reported it as fraudulent — defended the program.

Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system, said that $67,000 in travel to conferences for a handful of administrators– including an $8,000 trip to Las Vegas for a bullying conference– is merely an indication of the school’s “overinvestment in professional development.”

Other outrageous charges reportedly include, via the Baltimore Sun:

    "One cardholder charged $97,000 worth of student leadership grant funds to the card to take students on several trips out of town.

    Several cardholders exceeded the $500-per-transaction and $1,500-per-month limits imposed by the rules, and officials said that many of the cards were permitted to have no limits at all. And those who did have spending limits circumvented them by splitting charges into multiple transactions, which is also prohibited....

    About $4,700 worth of transactions made by [Jerome Oberlton's] department included trips to retail stores like Bath & Body Works, Ross, Walmart, the Dollar Tree and BJ’s Wholesale Club to buy snacks and refreshments, and gifts and decorations for holiday banquets, birthdays and baby shower celebrations, records show."

City school officials have ordered Jerome Olberton to pay back $5,000 of the dishonest charges, saying: “We have to remind people that they are using resources entrusted to them by the citizens and that they understand that just because it might be good intent, it might not be right — or look right.”

Edwards added: “But we believe there’s almost always a purpose. And it always has to do with the work of children.”

Though an investigation is underway, City schools CEO Andrés Alonso tried to downplay the theft, saying: “These are a fraction of a budget, are budget-approved expenses and categories… The expectation is at the end of the day, the [educational] outcomes improve.”


Australia: High school teacher speaks out on undisciplined classroom behaviour

TEACHERS say efforts to raise literacy and numeracy standards in the state's schools are futile until a glaring issue is dealt with - bad behaviour in the classroom.

One high school teacher from the state's southwest has spoken out, attracting strong support from across the teaching spectrum.

Speaking in his role as a Queensland Teachers Union representative, high school teacher Paul Cavanagh said politicians and parents needed to know the degree of the learning problem affecting well-behaved pupils.

The QTU, Queensland Association of State School Principals and the Queensland Secondary Principals Association all agreed behaviour was a critical and daily issue confronting staff and called for more support, especially from parents.

Concerns have been raised about increasingly aggressive parents and a rising number of children with behavioural and mental health disorders.

In a recent letter to federal Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne, Mr Cavanagh warned: "Having students disrupting the learning environment is the No.1 factor that is holding public schools back, in my opinion."

Mr Cavanagh, 30, who is on leave this term, told The Courier-Mail that while violent attacks on teachers often made headlines, smaller daily behavioural problems were critical.

"It is the major contributing factor behind student performance at the moment - how does anyone concentrate or learn well with the constant disruption that is happening and nothing is being done?" he said.

"You get these lovely, quiet wonderful kids who are interested, who want to learn, and as a teacher it is heartbreaking to think that I can't spend more time helping those kids get from good to better because I am trying to get these uncontrollable kids to learn a bit of discipline.

"If I had a child of my own I would be so upset, not with the school or the teachers, but with other children to think that so much time was taken away from why my kids are there."

He said most parents really cared about their children's education and it was politicians he wanted to understand what was really happening in classrooms, given the current focus on education.

Queensland Association of State School Principals president Hilary Backus said behaviour was "getting worse and it is getting more and more critical that schools and homes work together".

Last year her organisation called for a co-ordinator at every primary school to deal with mental health, behaviour and social issues.

Queensland Secondary Principals Association president Norm Fuller said there was "no doubt" behaviour was an issue, and there had been an increase in parents wanting to argue with staff and "take some matters into their own hands".

QTU president Kevin Bates said there had been an increase in more violent behaviour among children, but this was a reflection of the community, not schools, with some parents actively working against teachers on the issue.

He said Mr Cavanagh's frustrations were shared by many teachers, and called for more positive learning centres for pupils with behavioural issues.

Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens' Associations president Margaret Leary said schools needed to be responsible for teaching, and parents for social issues.

Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek said poor behaviour in school should not be tolerated, and urged parents to "take responsibility for the behaviour of their children to help ensure that all Queensland students have the best education experience possible".

Education Queensland assistant director-general Sharon Mullins said the department had measures in place to help teachers manage challenging behaviour, including support staff, suspensions and exclusions.

"Education Queensland expects parents to work in partnership with the school," she said.


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