The Education Transformation of China

University education in China is skyrocketing.  In 1996 China had less than 1 million freshmen, in 2006 there were over 5 million freshmen.  The freshman class is continuing to grow and university graduates, of course, are just 4 years behind.  About half of the entering students are in a hard science or engineering program.  As a result, China today produces 3 times more engineers than the United States and will quickly overtake the U.S. in total graduates.

Many people worry about what the Chinese education explosion means for
the United States but I am optimistic.  First, as China and other countries grow wealthy the
incentive to invest in R&D is increasing.  If China and India were as wealthy as the U.S. the market for cancer drugs, for example, would be eight times larger than it is today – and a larger market means more new drugs for everyone.

Second, the growth in Chinese education is
increasing the supply of new ideas and that too is a benefit to people around the world.

Surprisingly, China’s education system is being
transformed to a
considerable degree by private forces.  As late as 1999 the Chinese government
paid for most university education but from 2001 onwards tuition and
fees account for more than half of total educational expenditures.

I have drawn much of the data in this post from a fascinating new paper, The Higher Educational Transformation of China and its Global Implications by Li, Whalley, Zhang and Zhao.  The paper has much else of interest.

I will be traveling to China to give a talk at Yunnan University in late June and will report on the transformation as it looks on the ground.


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