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From where I sit: Red cards for 'hot' courses

More than 6 million young people are expected to enter the job market this summer after they graduate from university. Before many have even had an interview, they have been warned that the "hot" subjects they have studied in the expectation of landing a good job may not amount to much in a cold employment climate.

According to the 2009 Blue Book of Employment, published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and based on a survey by labour consultancy MyCOS, the disciplines with the highest proportions of unemployed graduates were law, computer science and technology, English, international economics and trade, industrial and commercial management, Chinese literature, electronic engineering and accounting.

In the press, commentators have said that university courses in these subjects have been given a red card by the jobs market.

The irony is that degrees in most of these disciplines have long been thought of as guarantees of jobs. They were seen as a route to secure, lifelong work, a "gold rice bowl" to use the Chinese phrase, and they remain popular among college applicants.

Researchers argue that the large levels of unemployment are the result of an explosion in the number of poor-quality courses in popular majors that began in the mid-1990s.

According to Deng Yuemin at the School of Educational Science at Quanzhou Normal College, the number of degree courses in English shot up from 138 in 1994 to 590 in 2005. Meanwhile, the number of programmes in computer science and technology leaped from 292 to 555. English degrees are offered by 84 per cent of major Chinese universities and computer science by 79 per cent.

As early as 2005, the China Education Daily newspaper reported that of the more than 2 million new undergraduates in 2004, about 70 per cent chose majors in computer science, law, international trade and English.

When discussing this problem of too many substandard offerings in high-demand courses, Li Lanqing, the former deputy premier, used the vivid image of a cake being repeatedly sliced horizontally and vertically, until it was reduced to crumbs. Such an approach, he said, wastes education resources and decreases the quality of training.

Since the commercialisation of the Chinese academy in the mid-1990s, universities subordinate to central government ministries as well as those supported by local government have been keen to increase their share of the market. Many institutions took the expedient route of offering majors in popular subjects whether or not they had a quality infrastructure and competent staff.

Dr Deng believes that the expansion of Chinese universities has also played a role in narrowing degree choices.

After 1998, when central government exhorted China to establish world-class universities, "big is beautiful" became the dominant philosophy and institutions merged to expand.

Twelve years ago, the country had 1,022 universities, of which only 191 had more than 5,000 students. Five years ago, the tally was 1,792 universities: of these, 978 enrolled more than 5,000, while 496 mega-universities counted more than 10,000 students. The focus had clearly shifted from quality to quantity.

Every June, I enjoy a drink or two with undergraduates before they bid a final farewell to campus. This year, I hope that these will be occasions for celebration rather than despondency.

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