Running For All They’re Worth

There is a university in my city that offers what I’m coming to think of as a classically “new China” approach to education – at least for the rich.

As you may have heard, China is racing. Athletically, especially as the 2008 Olympics loomed, the sporting cadres sprinted to pressure-treat their selected young warriors to shine, precious-metallically, before the world. Economically, China charges headlong toward international influence and prestige as the world’s largest producer of wealth. (Some say it’s only a matter of time.) Educationally, it seems that the notoriously manic, mobile concentration camp endured by China’s aspiring youth – with their profoundly anxious parents sounding the drumbeats of this single-minded march toward something or other – shows little sign of slowing down to see where it’s going. (To be fair, there is always the mantra: we must work hard so we can have a comfortable life. Even the most English-impaired students know this line, and the majority seem to find it satisfactory.)

A certain school here in Dalian, I’ve come to know, has among its main attractions a series of programs that allow students to travel for study in different disciplines  to several continents. The students get extra English training, and of course are even more likely than most to need to jump over the alphabet-soup of soggy barriers: TOEFL, IELTS and several degrees of home-grown Chinese tests of English competence (some of which, apparently, a native English speaker would find mysterious and maybe even unpassable). Some of this school’s international programs sound good, broadening; in one, freshmen and sophomores study here and then do their third and fourth years in a prominent university in Ontario. Only when I hear the financial details do I get wary. Chinese undergrads typically pay about 5000 yuan per year in tuition, and their dormitory costs are modest.1  However, access to this school and its foreign-study portals costs 25000 yuan annually.2

But here’s the program that interests me. Many students at this university are attracted (and still recruited, too, well into the fall term) to a program in which they can get a Master’s degree in two years, including the senior year of their Bachelor’s program! They pay two years of tuition in one, and cram together all the senior coursework in their undergraduate major and their first-year Master’s studies. What’s more, most of them are also more or less frantic about getting the minimum necessary standing in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Can you imagine? Students regard it as a “great chance ‘cause we can finish one year ahead of the others”.3 At first I asked lots of incredulous questions of these two-in-one students, and my amazement only deepened. I found that some of their classmates were even doing this double-dip from two different universities — in one case, the undergrad program was in a city nearly a thousand clicks north! — and then that their schedules weren’t necessarily coordinated, making it logistically impossible to attend all the classes they are signed up for. And then I learned more of the price, as kids calculated that their second year of Master’s work in the West will cost them over 250,000 yuan,4  this in a country where the average monthly wage is 2000 yuan. (My gross salary is about ¥9000, darn good by Chinese standards, but I couldn’t afford to enrol any of my kids in such a program even if I wanted to.) Wow.

And how about the reality that most of these kids can barely stand what they’re studying? Or that the young women believe that discriminatory hiring makes their graduation at 22, rather than at a one-year-closer-to-marrying-and-carrying-their-one-and-only-child twenty-THREE years old, a significant reason to race through this ramshackle burning building of a Master’s degree? Those are subjects for another day.

1  They should be. Conditions are generally spartan, and I’ve known Master’s students to be without showers in the same building, or even without access to hot water.

2  This high tuition may correlate with lower scores on the gao kao, the national test of university entrance. There are apparently lots of high-freight second chances for the low-scoring children of the new monetary aristocracy. A teacher I know taught at a software college, whose faux wrought-iron fences and lofty rotundas, stone facades and careful landscaping belied a shocking shortage of decent facilities for living and teaching, once one passed beyond the grand entries. The students were also fairly lame; this instantly disillusioned teacher escaped as soon as possible to “a real university”.

Ah, those others. All speak of the killing competition for jobs because of China’s population, while none seem to consider that there must also be a huge number of jobs, given China’s explosive economic growth.

4  And surely this Master’s work will be stunningly difficult for them, given how painstaking was a conversation with me.

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