A Signalling Model

For years we’ve heard about the technical mastery of Chinese students: they were entering the Intel Science Search in mass numbers, they were all getting engineering degrees, and the future downfall of the United States was at hand. The numbers were shocking to many and a little dubious to those of us with experience in education. (Many of my classmates were foreign at both the undergraduate and graduate level. They were quite smart but I never viewed foreign students as super-smart automatons ready to conquer the world.) Sure, perhaps 1,000,000 students entered the science fair, but were the projects any good?

It seems that some of the progress, at least, has been exaggerated. As the Economist reports:

ALMOST 7m students are graduating from Chinese universities this summer, and there is plenty of pressure to turn newly minted qualifications into well-paid jobs. The competition is increased by the ease with which almost anyone in China can buy a fake degree.

Can a country, in 30 years, have developed the infrastructure to educate 7 million people at the university level? That’s the equivalent of 140 giant State schools of 50,000 students each. Are there enough qualified professors to train them all?

There’s been much talk recently of an “education bubble” in America. I agree that education is expensive, but is it the sort of asset that can produce a bubble? I’m unsure. There is sad evidence that in China the signalling is more important than the educational experience:

“Chinese people pay more attention to having a diploma than they do to having a real education,” says Mr Xiong. “A diploma is worth actual money, whereas an education is not.”

A country where that is true will never be at the forefront of human progress.

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