A bitter taste from my college education experience in China

Two weeks ago, I met one of my friends, Tong, at Wall memorial gym at our routing Friday badminton night. Both of us are close to graduation this year and we couldn’t stop talking about current job hunting situations once we touched the topic.

To be honest, I haven’t started looking for jobs yet, but I already heard how bad it is. That is actually what I was thinking about whether I should stay for another semester to be more prepared for job hunting and interviews, if I get any.

Tong is the only child in his family and he is bored about the life in USA, so his top choice is in China. We would thought he is relatively competitive since he is getting his Ph.D degree here at the mechanical engineer program. While, based on what he told me, it was not what he expected.

Started at  year 1999, China’s government made a big decision, that was to dramatically increase the admission of higher education to release the pressure from gradually growing unemployment rate, which was related with the dramatic change of China’s social and economical status during the 1990s. Before that, even the admission of higher education was gradually growing with an annual rate around 8%, from year 1999, this number soared to 38% and this high growth continued for couple years till 2006. In 2008, this number decreased to 5%, which was even lower than before this college expansion policy.

Due to this aggressive college expansion, many college graduates like me, and my friend Tong, are suffering from the serious consequence now. The biggest challenge is where to find a job for such a suddenly increased population of highly-educated people.

Even only after four years, when the first batch of bachelors jumped into the job market, lots of problems showed up.

First, it built lots of pressure to colleges and universities. Due to a sudden expansion of students, most colleges and universities had trouble to offer enough basic facilities to students, like dormitories and classrooms, especially many lab classes. Then many universities spent lots of money on building construction trying to fulfill the expansion. After several years, many universities accumulated a huge debt due to this massive construction.

Second, the quality of higher education was declined. Largely due to the shortage of basic facilities and equipment, also shortage of faculties, the quality of college education during those 9 years were questioned by the public. A low faculty/student ratio, crowded classroom, in-flexible schedule, all those ended up over-whelmed faculties and less quality control. This was really bad to graduate school. Because this college expansion was not just limited to undergraduate education, but also graduate school. This even greater expansion was thought to buffer off the high unemployment rate among the fresh college graduates. In a sudden, the graduate students under one supervisor doubled or even tripled. You might be curious how the faculties can manage the financial support for 20 or even 30 graduate students. Actually, at that moment the graduate students were sponsored by the government fund, instead of research grant from the faculty. It was impossible to instruct or tutor each graduate student by the professor him/herself. Many graduate students spent several years wondering and tumbling about what they are doing, and then graduated with just a degree instead of improvement in their real ability. Now,most of the graduate students admitted during this expansion are graduated and facing the big challenge to find an appropriate job.

Also, due to this expansion, the requirement from the employers changed too. Many job positions which a bachelor’s degree will be fully enough , now they require for a master degree or even a doctor’s degree. Especially for those good-pay jobs. This brought our higher education into an even worse cycle. Everyone thought a higher degree means good job, and they all wanted to go to graduate school, while many technique-based jobs are in a big short of workers. Several years later after graduate school, they just realized the job available were still those technique-based ones, which they were able to take when they were right out of college. Should I take this job, or should I wait for a better one? Or, should I go for a higher degree like a Ph.D or even abroad study? Many of us payed with our best years in life to learn: Higher education does not guarantee good job. Many of my friends said more than once, “If I was given the chance to remake my choice, I would take a job when I graduated from college. I might be a mom/dad now, instead of unemployed and worried about my future.”

China’s higher education administration has already regretted for this rushed college expansion and stopped this expansion at 2008. Now the graduate schools are switching to the western model. The faculty is fully responsible for graduate students’ financial support. However, just like what happened to my friend Tong, there are more people holding a Ph.D degree than what this area actually calls for.  It is a valuable experience to be able to go to graduate school, but I cannot deny the bitter taste of it.

a successful project-based learning lab class

Since we are focusing on project-based learning, case study, team-based learning and all those new teaching strategies, I kind of figured out more why the General Microbiology lab is such a popular class now.

This lab based 2000 level class is offered by the department of biological science and the students are required to take the Microbiology lecture part either before they take the lab or take both simultaneously. It is not attached to the lecture so tightly, but knowing the basic of general microbiology is definitely very helpful.

The whole lab class is composed of 44 different exercises and two major long-term projects.  The students meet twice per week, either Monday&Wednesday, or Tuesday&Thursday. The students work in pairs, and they set up some experiments or tests on the first day, and then come back to check the results at the following class. For each exercise they need to write down the expected results and the real results they get from their own experiments. Then they analyze their data and write a short conclusion on that. With all those individual exercises, they learn and practice the common techniques used in Microbiology. A short mini lecture is also given by the TA at the beginning of each class to emphasize the general background information and principles. Most of the time during the class, the TA will just walk around to answer questions or help the students to go through their experiments successfully.

The two major projects are performed at later of the semester, which are built upon all the  techniques or tested they already practiced in this lab. Each project is like a case from a diagnostic lab, they need to figure out what is the organisms in their given sample. The students will work individually on their own puzzle and after about 4 weeks work, they come to a conclusion and hand in a lab report and journal.

There are also two mini projects they have to work independently during the first half of the semester. It is more like a mini summary of what they have done. By working on those mini projects, the students are getting trained on comprehensive thinking and also applying  what they learn in class to “real world” issue. One mini project is to identify the resident microorganisms from their own skin and all the students got so excited about it and were very eager to try different tests to figure out what they are.

As a TA for this lab class, I do enjoy my teaching all the time. The students are very involved and enthusiastic about those hands-on bench work. They also gain a better understanding of the lecture. When they come to the final major project, no one freaks out and most of them end up with a perfect job. I did see through this lab  class that project based learning is very interesting, inviting,and productive to the students. It is more fun for the students, also more fun for the TA.