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China’s educational dilemma: Too young to choose, too old to switch

By 5 June 2009 No Comment

There is little debate among Beijing’s cognoscenti that Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) is one of city’s most prestigious medical schools. Yet PUMC first-year graduate student Zheng Li regrets the path that has taken her there.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer because my Chinese is very good,” said Zheng, now a biochemistry major who relinquished her law aspirations in high school. “[N]obody from my family supported me, so I had no [option to pursue law].”

“Doing research is boring,” said Zheng, yet she finds it difficult to consider another career path after investing six years of hard work into pursuing medical research.

When it comes to choosing careers, Chinese traditionally value stability over happiness. And as the stagnant Chinese economy tends to spur desperate job searches in an already highly competitive environment, college graduates in general are under pressure to find well-paying jobs.

In 1986, the government implemented a nine-year compulsory attendance system (Law on Nine-Year Compulsory Education) designed to increase access to education for all children. The resulting system offers a wide variety of vocational training and shunts students onto a career path at an early age. Students must decide whether to pursue science or the arts during their second year of high school. Test scores obtained at the end of high school will further determine what subject they major in in college.

As students progress to higher-level education, pressure from family expectations, as well as the education system structure, mount, making a change of direction increasingly difficult. As a result, many students who were too young to make informed choices at the time now rue their decisions.

After three years of nursing training at PUMC, Yang Suling would like to become a doctor even though she knows the switch would be problematic. “Sometimes you are too tired [from nursing work],” Yang said. “The salary is not high and the work is too much because the number of nurses is much too small. There are usually 38 patients for 11 nurses. And because there are not enough nurses, you cannot have” a quality relationship with patients.

Observers question whether the government can expect worker productivity to reach its potential in China when significant elements of the workforce may be dissatisfied with their professional lives. Both Zheng and Yang believe the education system needs to change but they see no immediate or obvious solution. There are simply too many students for the education system to handle, they agreed.

At the moment, Chinese students appear to generally accept the career path that is chosen for them, and so the pursuit of happiness remains even more of a question mark perhaps than in other rapidly globalizing countries. “I am trying to make myself happy in such a boring situation,” Zheng said. “I can only hope for happiness for the future.”

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