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'Education useless' theory worthless

By MEI YONG | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-13 06:59
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A job fair for college graduates is held in Shanghai on Oct 16, 2023. [Photo/Xinhua]

Recent years have seen an uptick in unemployment rates due to slowing of the economy. The fact that many college graduates are finding it difficult to land a job has sparked online discussions on the cost of education and the returns on it, with many agreeing with the notion that "education is futile".

Supported by some data, this argument has gained traction because many of the record 11.58 million youths who graduated from college last year are facing grim prospects of employment.

Stories like a person with a doctorate's degree from Zhejiang University is delivering food, and college graduates and overseas-returned graduates are selling hot-pot ingredients have prompted many to question the value of education.

Moreover, the fact that about 36,000 fewer candidates have applied to take the postgraduate exam in 2024, the first decline in numbers in years, has also fueled the "education is futile" rhetoric.

Is education truly worthless? This question has resurfaced due to several factors: the massification of higher education, changes in the demands for talents due to socioeconomic development and industrial transformation, and the declining returns on investment in education.

The massification of higher education has significantly increased the number of college graduates, diluting the value of college degrees. As the job market becomes saturated with graduates, the scarcity of high-level talents amid a surplus of individuals with average skills has become apparent, particularly in fields such as the humanities.

For example, more than 900 institutions in China offer English major, making it the most common degree program, yet there's a shortage of toptier talents who are proficient in English and have a good knowledge about the differences in Chinese and foreign approach to fields such as international relations and journalism.

The perceived diminishing returns on the investment in education have given rise to the "education is futile" discourse. Given the challenging job market, many believe college education does not guarantee any sort of employment, let alone a suitable job. And with various economic opportunities available, the notion that one can become financially successful even without formal education is becoming increasingly acceptable.

In light of these developments, concerted efforts need to be made on multiple fronts to change the situation. For instance, universities must take measures to integrate education, research and industry, while enhancing cooperation with enterprises through tailored talent training programs. Expanding practical courses and bringing industry professionals into academia to organize regular skill training programs is necessary to cultivate the talents needed by businesses.

Also, connecting with external mentors rich in experience and industry knowledge can help college students better understand industry trends and needs, which will help them better prepare for the job market.

Additionally, the authorities need to pay greater attention to vocational education, a crucial component of China's educational system. Students, parents and society, on their part, should abandon their bias against vocational training, because it integrates education with career prospects throughout the learning process, offering targeted, technical and practical training which allows students to hone their skills which can get them well-paying jobs in the future.

The government has been trying to elevate vocational education's status through laws and policies, with the Vocational Education Law and the Education Law reinforcing its role in the national education system. In fact, the elevation of vocational colleges to the undergraduate level, with 22 colleges upgraded last year, has created more job opportunities for graduates of vocational colleges.

Developing a correct view of employment and career choice is key to dispelling the notion of "education being useless". People, especially students, must understand the current employment landscape, their positioning, and strengths and weaknesses. While realizing that a college degree is no longer a ticket to employment, college students should leverage education resources to enrich their professional knowledge and competitiveness. And youths should approach vocational education with an open mind in order to make the most of what the job market has to offer.

Although the "education is futile" theory varies in form and reflects collective confusion over the perception of diminishing returns on investment in education, it is not a rejection of learning per se. Education is not synonymous with earning money, nor does a college degree guarantee financial success. The value of education is knowledge, which we need to make informed decisions not only in our professional life but also in our social and other spheres of life.

The author is an associate professor at the School of Foreign Languages, Hubei University. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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