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Science majors surpass liberal arts at universities

Nation's weak links in tech development drive young talent to associated majors

By ZOU SHUO | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-08-15 09:33
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Ten years ago, liberal arts majors were the hot proposition, but according to a recent report, engineering and sciences majors are more favored by Chinese university students nowadays.

The shift has happened since the country set its sights on growth powered by technological breakthroughs and high-end manufacturing.

Artificial intelligence topped the list of most popular majors among new undergraduates for the third consecutive year, according to a report released by tech giant Baidu and education portal EOL.

Other popular majors this year include big data, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.

Medicine has also been in high demand for the last two years due to increased awareness of public health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2013, the top five majors were all liberal arts-financial management, marketing, English, business management and law.

The e-commerce major also made it into top five between 2014 and 2020, but slipped in 2021.

The popularity of engineering has also been reflected in the annual adjustment of university majors by the Ministry of Education.

It added 31 new undergraduate majors last year, 14 of which were in engineering. Similarly, 14 of 30 new majors added in 2020 were also in engineering.

Since the ministry approved the establishment of AI-related undergraduate majors in 2018, 440 universities now offer them. When 180 universities set up AI majors in 2019, it became the top new major of the year.

Many engineering majors are associated with terms like "intelligent" and "smart", with technological and scientific innovation in mind.

Jia Limin, a professor at the State Key Laboratory of Rail Traffic Control at Beijing Jiaotong University, said that the shift is a reflection of changing patterns of development.

Financial and management majors were previously popular due to capital's role in driving social and economic progress. Rising geopolitical tensions have encouraged the turn toward engineering, as China has realized that technology will be the fundamental engine of future growth, and so engineering and science majors have become the most popular, he said.

More importantly, there are still many weak links and bottlenecks in China's technological development, which require more talent to solve, he said.

The ministry has given Beijing Jiaotong University approval to set up a new major in intelligent transportation engineering this year, and Jia has been spearheading its development at the university.

"We realized a decade early that the convergence of intelligent technology and transportation would be a trend in the sector, so the subject has existed at the university as a sub-major of transportation engineering since 2009, and has always been one of our most sought-after majors."

Ministry approval has raised its popularity, and it has become the university's most popular major this year, with only 10 percent of applicants admitted, he said.

To take it, students are required to master multiple disciplines, such as transportation engineering, automation, computer sciences and artificial intelligence, Jia said, adding that undergraduates with the major are in high demand in the job market, and can easily go on to pursue postgraduate studies.

Zhao Zhe, a second-year undergraduate student of artificial intelligence at the School of Future Technologies at Northeastern University, said that she did not know much about AI when she chose the major, but knew that it would be a future trend.

"As I've learned more about AI in the past year, I've become more interested and it's reaffirmed my decision to choose this major," the 19-year-old said.

The development of AI in China still lags behind other countries, so students are obliged to study properly and contribute to the sector's rapid development, she added.

"Students cannot predict what major will be in high demand in the future, so what's important is that we follow our hearts, and study something we are passionate about."

Chu Zhaohui, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, said that students need to be more objective about popular majors as the demand for them might change based on societal demand and employment prospects.

When choosing a major, they should focus more on their strengths and passions, he said, adding that if they pursue a popular major in which they are not interested, they will not learn much professionally and will still find it hard to get a good job.

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