What’s behind China’s student exodus?

When Unigroup recently announced that they were now moving twice as many expatriates out of China as they were into China, it created quite a stir for the global press. A piece by the WSJ stated:

“For years, China was a promised land for expanding multinationals and manufacturers, drawing hordes of expatriate employees eager to capitalise on the country’s billion-plus consumers. Could those days be over?”

It is a question that is certainly important to the readers of the Wall Street Journal, who are largely going to be managers and executives of Western firms, or foreign based executives reading up on the latest China trends, but for Collective Responsibility we see a larger problem looming. A problem that we believe presents a threat to China’s future economic expansion, particularly as the country looks to move away from a labor/capital intensive economy to one where innovation and services are at its core.

The problem is specifically the loss, in record numbers, of talented students to overseas institutions. It is an issue that has been discussed in the background of other pieces focused on the desire of China’s wealthy to look, and in many cases successfully, immigrate to other countries. A move that typically starts with sending a child to school overseas.

For us, as much as the lifestyle issues and concerns over economic environment certainly should be focused on, we have found through discussions with students that quality of education and a fear of not being able to gain the skills in the Chinese system to succeed, are driving these relocation decisions.

In his recent article, China’s War on Western Values, Minxin Pei responds to news detailing wants to remove “western influence” from China’s education system and the impact that it could have inside the classroom:

“How could these students be expected to compete in the global economy, when their education has been compromised in this way?

The current trend implies deteriorating conditions for their teachers as well, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, as academics face tighter restrictions on scholarly exchanges with the West. With fewer opportunities to attend conferences abroad, publish papers in Western academic journals, or spend time teaching or conducting research outside of China, their professional development and careers could be severely impaired.

As a result, the government’s suppression of ‘Western values’– not to mention its relentless war on the Internet – is likely to spur an exodus of the country’s best and brightest.”

Which, in reading the Foreign Policy article China’s Wealthy Parents Are Fed Up With State-Run Education, is where we see the problem going forward:

“Many of the well-connected and affluent parents who have opted to remove their children from the Chinese state education system have themselves often emerged as winners from that system. That means they understand its drawbacks and perils better than most. […]

Chang had enrolled his son in a top-ranked public elementary school, but it was rigid and monotonous; Chang then tried a swanky private academy, but found it too conscious of status and wealth. ‘The primary role of education is to produce workers and consumers,’ Chang said of these schools. ‘It is a factory.'”

With more parents seeing the value of well-rounded development, and free thinking, rather than a pure teach to test curricula where high levels of competition and pressure are put onto their kids, it is clear that many more will look to move their children overseas. Particularly as they now have the financial means to do so.

This is where China’s education system, more than any other Asian nation, requires a response. It should revise the needs of its talent pool going forward as the economy transitions to one where service industries and domestic consumption replace a manufacturing and investment centric economy. A revision that will recognize that to incubate talent, to foster a culture of innovation, students need to work in teams, learn to triangulate information, and learn from risk.

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