But this entire debate is pointless when neither decision nor indecision is even an option. That’s now the case for hundreds of students at the University of South China, which according to a number of news outlets has essentially barred those who are in their second year of the school’s civil-engineering program from selecting their specialties; the program is broken down into seven of them.
Instead, the university—which according to its website offers dozens undergraduate majors in fields ranging from engineering to the liberal arts and serves a growing international population—is forcing all but the program’s top 190 students to choose their majors Harry Potter-style: picking them, as the lifestyle blog Shanghaiist put it, “out of a hat.” Okay, the new policy doesn’t involve a literal hat—but it’s still a lottery-like system that one legal worker, according to the Wall Street Journal, described as “a game for kids in kindergarten.”
Shanghaiist quotes a university spokesperson, Lu Qinghua, offering an earnest and amusingly simple rationale for the school’s widely criticized move: It didn’t have a choice. “If choosing a major is solely based on students’ wants, some majors will be overcrowded and others will have difficulty enrolling enough students,” Lu reportedly said, adding that other institutions have adopted similar policies and that among the 400 or so students who have to leave their majors to fate, the highest achievers can apply to change their specializations after a year of study. People are, of course, pissed, blasting the decision on the Internet and in the news media. Someone quoted by Xinhua said the rule amounts to “discrimination,” while the aforementioned legal worker criticized it as “the product of laziness and mismanagement.”
There’s little doubt that colleges in China (and pretty much everywhere) struggle to keep course enrollments perfectly balanced and workforces perfectly distributed. That’s in large part a byproduct of humanity’s imperfection and what happens when, God forbid, young adults are allowed to study subjects in which they’re interested. Some colleges simply expand course offerings when there’s heightened interest; some form partnerships with third-party institutions or academic programs. And globally, the degree to which students have discretion over their area of specialization varies. Certain countries, for example, in the past have set quotas on the numbers of students who pursue higher education in certain disciplines based on workforce demands.
At lots of U.S. colleges, efforts to avoid problems with supply and demand are, of course, often stymied by bureaucratic dysfunction. And on the reverse, there are certainly some overzealous efforts to diversify offerings. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, lists some of the more, er, niche bachelor’s degrees offered by some American postsecondary institutions in 2008, including: Equine science and management; poultry science; and fiber, textile, and weaving arts. I wonder what an aspiring business major might say if he or she were forced to specialize in the horse industry because there were too many people signing up for Macroeconomics 101.