Adapting China’s Higher Education To Meet Modern Day Real-World Demands – Analysis


By Yi Wang

In the midst of challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, slow economic growth, and industrial transformation, businesses in China, including internet giants, small and medium-sized enterprises, and foreign-funded companies, are grappling with operational hurdles. The nation is currently facing a crucial phase with limited job opportunities, particularly affecting the younger generation who are encountering a scarcity of suitable employment or a decline in job quality.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the urban unemployment rate for individuals aged 16 to 24 reached 20.8% in May 2023, continuing its upward trend from 20.4% the previous month.

With the rise of the online platform economy, various self-employment professions have emerged, including social media influencers, ride-hailing drivers, and food delivery riders, among others. According to statistics from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the number of these “flexible workers” in China has surpassed 200 million. However, a significant portion of them acknowledges that their income is often unpredictable, adding to the pressure of economic uncertainty. Many recent graduates struggle to find suitable employment, leading to an increasing reliance on their parents. The delayed entry of young individuals into the job market also results in a postponed transition to adulthood, placing additional burdens and financial responsibilities on aging parents.

The country’s Ministry of Education predicts that the number of graduates from tertiary education in the 2023 academic year will reach 11.58 million, an increase of 820,000 compared to the previous year, reaching a new historical high. China has a remarkable number of talents supplied by higher education institutions, including graduates from universities, colleges, as well as from vocational and technical institutions. Many of them are not ready for the appropriate skills required by the job market, resulting in a greater disparity between the outcomes of their education and employers’ expectations. It is not uncommon to see more and more of the younger people “having a degree but no job” and “higher education but lower salary”. The investment in higher education has, in fact, turned into a pursuit of academic credentials, suppressing the acquisition of knowledge and skills. It is safe to say that the old education models lack sensitivity to the changing demands of the labor market.

Technological innovation is advancing at a rapid pace, that last year, the hottest issue was the Metaverse, but this year it has been replaced by ChatGPT. The Internet industry has attracted the majority of top talents over the past two decades. However, renowned global tech companies like Google, Twitter, and the former Facebook (now Meta) are now undergoing large-scale layoffs. The widespread application of new technologies is changing social structures, modes of production, and even the concept of professions.

“The nature of work is changing”, a World Bank report aptly noted back in 2019. This is largely due to technological developments that practically revolutionize our world. As a result, the form, norms, and essence of work constantly evolving, including the value of work itself. In this new era, people need skills that can sustainably develop more urgently than ever before. They need to ensure their ability to transition freely from one profession to another, adapt to rapid market changes, and withstand economic risks.

Both the education system and the job market need to evaluate the quality and efficiency of service delivery based on learning outcomes and skill proficiency. The criteria for hiring talented individuals by employers are not solely based on a relevant university degree or what one is currently proficient at, but rather on how well individuals can adapt to job changes. For a country, the social returns on educational investment are actually higher than investment in physical assets. The improvement of human skills and the potential for value creation are closely linked to future economic and social prosperity. The cultivation of skilled talents has now become a focal point for comparing and competing national strengths. China’s higher education urgently needs to update its concepts and development models.

The process of globalization has fostered increased collaboration in industries and expanded labor mobility between regions. There is a growing connection between labor mobility and digital work opportunities, with skills serving as a universal language for workers. The internationalization of occupational skill standards and the recognition of qualifications have prompted higher education institutions worldwide to enhance educational openness and embrace globalization, facilitating international exchanges.

The mobility of talent across borders and the establishment of partnerships are crucial drivers of economic development, international cooperation, and technological advancements. China should actively engage in extensive exchanges and cooperation in vocational education with both developed and developing countries, promoting idea-sharing and best practices. Through multifaceted dialogue and communication in talent development for vocational skills, China can strengthen its connections with global industries and trade, deepen partnerships with foreign counterparts, attract foreign investments into emerging sectors, and achieve high-quality growth objectives.

Skill development is indispensable to the long-term improvement of employment and living standards. Social evolution is not merely a competition for limited resources at any cost, but rather a process of expanding the realm of equitable development and creating more opportunities for all individuals to thrive and improve their lives. The quality of vocational education and skill enhancement is not only the mission of vocational institutions but has expanded to become an extraordinary undertaking that affects more job positions and raises national income for the entire society.

As society progresses, higher education institutions play a crucial role in equipping individuals with the necessary technical knowledge and skills. These institutions collaborate with lifelong learning programs and diverse vocational training avenues, providing workers with various channels to enhance their skills. Regardless of their life stage, individuals have opportunities for skill development, career advancement, and social mobility, fostering social harmony and inclusive growth. The rapid urbanization in China has led to the emergence of regional economic clusters, with science and technology cities witnessing accelerated development. This growth has intensified the competition for highly skilled labor and innovative talents.

Given the current state of China’s job market, young people faces some major challenges. Addressing these issues requires a comprehensive strategy that includes aligning skills education with the changing needs of the workplace, offering job training programs to enhance skills, and fostering international collaboration. By adopting this approach, China can foster the sustainable growth of its workforce, drive technological advancements, and contribute to the overall economic and social prosperity of the country.

Yi Wang is a researcher at ANBOUND


Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

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