Posts Tagged ‘University’

Getting “Educated”

Posted: December 30, 2013 in Education
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I recently came across this documentary called “Education, Education” (released a year ago but new to me) exploring the hardship young Chinese are facing in leveraging their education for a decent job. It follows a college graduate struggling to find work, a poor rural girl deciding what she should do after failing the gaokao, and a recruiter touting a sham private college.

The film was advertised with the question, “Has higher education become a cause of poverty rather than a route out of it?” This, I think, is a depressingly relevant question to be asking in China today.

I’ve often said that what the country needs perhaps more than anything is education – the kind that opens minds and sparks a desperately needed innovative spirit. Unfortunately, what it more often provides is “education” – the kind that puts teachers at the front of classrooms but does little other than waste students’ time and embed them with a sense of entitlement.

The film’s depiction of the two students is compelling, but the sham agent is what really grabbed my attention. The man travelled from city-to-city giving talks to students who failed the gaokao, trying to convince them to attend the expensive “private college” he works for.

He gives inspiring speeches and rattles off quotes like “Learning is the noblest of all pursuits in life.” He’s actually preaching to the parents in the room, who’ve been taught their whole lives (and often seen firsthand) that a college degree can change a poor peasant’s fate.

Between speeches, the man explains to the filmmaker how he’s scamming them. He pulls up the PowerPoint presentation he uses to show pictures of the campus’s libraries, conference halls, labs and auditorium. “None of them exist,” he said. “Just images from the Internet. 90 percent of the tutors have no teaching qualifications or experience.”

He goes on to coldly describe how much the scam hurts its victims. “With the minimum monthly wage of 1,200 yuan and spending nothing, it would take five years for a student to pay back their debts. Look at me, I’m a qualified graphic designer but have to travel around selling a scam. What hope is there for the kids that I recruit?”

At first I couldn’t believe that he would admit these things on camera with his face shown, but it dawned on me that he was probably doing it out of guilt as a sort of atonement. “Nobody can do this for a long time, everyone wants to quit,” he said near the end of the film. “[The families] are so poor. Giving money to [our school]? What the hell? Where’s our conscience?”

Earlier this year I spoke to a group of young students from rural Henan who’d been lured into a nearly identical scam hundreds of miles from home. After they failed the gaokao, they were called by a recruiter to attend the inspirational pitch. They were incredibly poor, and thought some kind of education was the only way to change their family’s status. So they paid 10,000 yuan – nearly all the money their parents had saved – just for the first year at the “college.” They planned to borrow from other family and friends for the subsequent three years.

In villages like theirs, everyone knows one-another so few would dare try to swindle others. “People in the countryside are very honest,” one of the young men told me. “So we had no sense of law.”

The recruiter from the film acknowledged how he preyed on this naiveté. “The more simple they are, the more likely they are to be fooled by us,” he said. “The clever ones don’t fall for it so easily.”

Like the school from the film, the fake college that the Henan men attended eventually folded and the ringleader disappeared with all of their money. It stole a year of their lives and left them 10,000 yuan poorer with nothing to show for it but a keen sense of disillusionment. “The only thing I learned at that school was not to trust anybody,” one of them said. “I got hurt badly. My first contact with society was full of lies.”

It had happened three years prior to when I spoke to them, but they’d all been too ashamed to ever tell their parents.

Most stayed in the city, some toiling at low-end labor jobs as they kept studying for the gaokao hoping they’d eventually pass and skirt having to tell their families anything (one man had already failed three times).

Education scams like these have become ubiquitous in China. Earlier this year it was revealed that there were at least 70 of them operating just in Beijing. They prey on the sense that any “education” is better than nothing and can provide some social mobility. They prey on the desperation of those who can least afford it.

I had to wonder though, would the young men really have been any better off had they scored a few points higher on the gaokao and been admitted to a low-tier college? About one-fourth of those who graduate now are still jobless a year later.

A few months later I met a man who’d graduated from a second-tier provincial university with a degree in Chinese in 2009. He’d spent the following three years hopping across the country working in factories and grocery stores as he struggled to find white collar work. It wasn’t until after he cut his losses and paid 10,000 yuan for a four-month computer programming course that he found a decent-paying job in an office.

I suggested to one of the Henan men that perhaps he’d be better off cutting his losses and attending a shorter term technical school, since that’s where the most demand in China is. However, that just didn’t have the same appeal. “I thought about going to technical school when my college went bust,” he replied. “But my classmates criticized me. They said, ‘your parents saved for you to go to college. How could you use their money for technical school?’”

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On one of the first mornings after I’d just moved to China in 2007, I was awoken at 6am to People’s Liberation Army marching songs being belted out by university freshmen. When I walked outside, I was taken aback by the droves of students decked out in camouflage intently walking in lock stop – that is, before they saw me and broke out into giggles. Ever since then, I’ve been more intrigued by Junxun than just about anything else I’ve seen during my stay in China.

Junxun refers to the military training all Chinese university freshmen must go through when starting college. What’s intrigued me is how in many ways it seems to be a microcosm of how Chinese youth today both embrace and subconsciously resist the carrots and sticks that the Communist Party uses to keep their support.

Two years ago I did a feature for Foreign Policy on Junxun. After returning to Tsinghua again this year to take some pictures of the new “cadets,” I thought it’d be worth making a little video based more-or-less on that feature. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I think if you get a feel for what goes on during Junxun, it makes it a bit easier to understand the wider relationship between the Communist Party and the “Post-90s Generation.”




Link (if the embed doesn’t work)

Today I came across a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times called The China Conundrum which explores a multitude of issues American universities face in recruiting Chinese students. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest difficulties is academic dishonesty.

Each autumn when I taught in Nanjing I would have a gush of students (most of whom I’d never met) come to me for help with their overseas college applications. While it wasn’t true for everyone, the vast majority were doing something considered academically dishonest.

Some asked me to write a recommendation for them as their Chinese teacher who would later sign it – not a terrible request as most Chinese teachers don’t know English well enough. Then some would ask me to edit “their” essay which was usually a patchwork of pieces from the internet that they wanted me to smooth over. They were often confused when I handed them the paper back and said, “I’m not helping you cheat.” In their minds, they had created an original essay by cutting and pasting several separate passages together.

Then there were those who straight up asked me to write their paper for them. Usually it wasn’t so explicit. They might ask me to write an “example” for them, or help get them started. The New York Times piece talked about agents who write papers directly for students at a price. I’ve also been offered one of these “ghostwriting” jobs.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For every step of the application process there’s a shortcut. Don’t think you can pass the SAT or GRE entrance exam? You can hire people to use your ID and sit the exam for you. My girlfriend (who was an English major) got offered a job doing this. She’d get paid 3,000 yuan a pop and a free flight to whatever city the test was in. Not small change for a university student who would make 8 yuan an hour at KFC or 20 yuan tutoring. She was told by the agency not to worry because if she got caught there’s no punishment like there is for the Gaokao, given that it’s a foreign test.

Once you’ve got the test and the essay you can get a fake transcript easily, or even better, get the real transcript changed. I met yet another student once who didn’t think his scores were good enough to get into an American grad school, so he used his connections at the university to have them officially changed on his transcript. Bribery would have yielded the same result. Need extracurricular activities? Awards? Honors? Lie, fake, fake.

The distressing part with all of this was that students would tell me exactly how they were going to cheat the system without an ounce of shame. A girl once asked me to look over an essay an agent had written for her, which I could immediately tell was completely plagiarized. “How could they cheat me like that?! I’m so angry,” she said without a trace of irony.

For these students, cheating was a no-big-deal no-brainer. I try to avoid sweeping generalizations but if you ever teach a writing class in China, you WILL have at least one student plagiarize. And giving an in-class writing assignment doesn’t help. Chinese students can memorize pages and pages of text verbatim. And if you only have one cheat, you probably either haven’t looked carefully enough or you’ve stumbled across one of the most upstanding writing classes in the country. I had six cheaters in the first writing class I taught, which, after reprimands and several long-winded lectures on what plagiarism is and why it’s wrong, dwindled down to two by the end of the semester. And those two were still shocked as to why I failed them.

One of the only students I ever let get by without failure managed to do so by warming my heart with what I think was an honest email. (Honestly, I was also a bit worried she might kill herself):

Dear Eric,
I am terrible sorry for that. I konw it was a serious mistake that I was taken.I also afraid that you will never forgive me.I am so regretful and shameful now. 😦 Just beacause busy with pereparing my  National Entrance Examination for Master’s Degree ,I searched the information from the Web and pieced some of them to form a “essay” to save time.
    My English writing skill is not good,and I need more time than others to write an essay.What is the worse,even though I spend one day to write an essay,I have a srong sense of inferiority when I compare it to others’.I never feel confident with my English.That is why I never rise my hand in your class.I really hate such a myself.But it cannot be a excause,I know.Whether or no I should not have treat my essay in that way.I will write another two essays on my own to remedy the mistake.And my deed is so unpardonable that it is nessary if you do not forgive me.I just want you trust for my new essays again.I will be very thankful if you do so.
   In this universy,foreign teachers are always my favorite teachers.Beacause you treat students equally without discrimination.That is why now I feel so sorry and shameful than I have been ever before.:(
I will never do such thing again. I will keep my words in future.

In their other classes, Chinese teachers will often turn a blind eye to cheating. As I later found out, it causes them all kinds of trouble. One of the students I failed got his parents to complain to the university, who in turn told me to retest the student. I told them that retesting him wouldn’t undue his cheating and would only burden me for his dishonesty. I never heard back. His score was simply changed from above.

One complaint I heard was that students are never taught how to do things like research and write a thesis, so the teachers who’ve failed them implicitly expect them to cheat. They won’t be running plagiarism check software like this hard-ass foreign teacher did. I can sympathize with this to some degree, but I just wonder what the end-game is in students’ minds. Sure, the ones in China get their degree and better job prospects, but I really can’t understand what those cheating their way into foreign universities are thinking.

A fellow foreign teacher at my school had a very wealthy student who could barely say his ABC’s, but he hired an agent who managed to cheat his way into a British university…which he promptly dropped out of when he predictably couldn’t make sense of a single class or throw his money around to get what he wanted. In a nutshell, this is what I tried to tell all these students. Nobody’s going to be impressed that you dropped out of a great foreign university and wasted tens of thousands of dollars. But hey, I guess that’s what fake degrees are for.