China hopes to raise the quality and quantity of its graduates in its most ambitious programme ever to grow top talent, raising the gross enrolment rate for universities from around 24% to 40% within 10 years and the number of citizens with college-level education in the work force from 9% to 20% overall.
In the next decade China intends to import top brains as well as produce a new generation of political and local government leaders, engineers, scientists, technology professionals, entrepreneurs, educators, agricultural experts and social welfare experts according to the Medium and Long-term Talent Development Plan (2010-2020).
Although the plan was passed by the Beijing Politburo in May this year Chinese officials have begun a campaign to promote it abroad, to emphasise its far-reaching role to convert China into a knowledge-based economy rather than just a manufacturing hub. Officials have stressed the aim is to transform China into an 'innovation society'.
Much of the focus in recent weeks has been on China's goal to attract foreign researchers back to the country and recruit 10,000 more foreign students.
But analysts note that the plan has more far-reaching implications for China's global economic status, with improving its global economic competitiveness a key goal.
"Cheap labour has fuelled China's development over the past few decades, but that model...has led China to a crossroads. A new growth engine, to an innovative and sustainable development, is needed," said Wang Huiyao, Director General of the Centre for Globalisation in Beijing and Vice-chair of the China Talent Research Society under the Ministry of Human Resources.
"What is staggering [about the plan] is that China now has eight million students, and that will increase by 2020 to 200 million," said Wang who was closely involved in drafting the plan. This figure possibly includes all post-school students including vocational, technical and professional qualifications.
He added: "The implications for government and society are enormous."
In a discussion at the Brookings Institution in the US this month Wang described it as more than just a plan to increase education and skills levels, but a move from "Made in China to Created in China".
"It is a move from hardware to software," Wang said.
"China has very impressive hardware infrastructure - the Three Gorges Dam, high-speed railways, and from the Olympic Stadium to the Expo Pavilion, but it lacks investment in education, R&D, public health, energy consumption, conservation and environmental protection, institution building, social welfare protection and so on. There are many, many areas that really need people to do it, not just hardware."
He also said China needed to create better paid jobs in the service sector which is currently only 40% of GDP, and make better use of university graduates. "This will help raise overall consumption levels and [help China] rely less on exports."
And the key to all of this is education spending and reform. "If it does not reform education it [the plan] will not happen," Wang said.
The plan is not simply about driving the economy. It is also intended to upgrade the quality of its cadres, in a little-noticed attempt at political reform from one based on party loyalty and connections to one based on merit and skills.
"By 2020 more than 85% of all government employees will have more than four years' college education. So, in future if you want to work in government you will have a better education in order to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government," Wang said.
In future officials will not just be nurtured from the communist party and local level institutions but will also be recruited from outside. "Officials are to be hired from various enterprises and organisations," said Wang. "In the past the government seldom did the hiring from the market."
The concentration on upgrading general higher education levels, in particular to improve local government, is a "breakthrough", Wang said, as in the past the focus of higher education expansion and quality was always on science and technology.
According to government estimates, another five million high-quality science, technology and engineering professionals will be needed in the next 10 years. Another eight million will also be needed in the fields of education, political science, law, health and disaster prevention.
And three million professional social workers will be required by 2020, as well as an additional 3.8 million R&D professionals as research and development spending increases and the education budget is projected to rise from its current 2.7% of GDP to 4% in a decade.
Denis Fred Simon, Director of the US-China Technology Business and Business relations programme at Pennsylvania State University and a long-time analyst of China's talent supply and demand, said although China's plan was ambitious in terms of projected figures, "I think a lot of it is achievable, the will to achieve it is there in China."
However, he raised questions of quality. Referring to China's 1999 decision to dramatically increase enrolments in universities, he said students were "pouring into the universities but the question is, what happened to the faculty that teach them?"
"The faculty simply aren't there in terms of quality," Simon said.
"Quality problems come about because, simply, the education they are getting is not competent enough to meet the requirements of the job market," Simon said, pointing to high level unemployment among current graduates, put at 25%-32% of the graduating cohort, usually from 'second and third tier universities' where quality is not of international standards.
However, with growth in China's high technology sector slowing down, which in turn is slowing China's economic growth, Simon said: "China is not moving fast enough to become an innovative economy. Chinese leaders realise that. They need the kind of talent to be entering into the picture to move the economy along.
"A really rapid response is needed to fix this problem. The problem is not just a quantity problem, it is a quality problem and that quality problem is something that China has a short-term window to deal with."
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