"If the country wants to keep growing, its state economists know they need to encourage entrepreneurship and creativity, neither of which is tested for on this life-determining exam."
As this Wharton paper outlines, it may be better for Chinese students to get their degrees from a second- or third-tier foreign university than an elite Chinese school. Multinationals in China say "it is difficult to find acceptable hires despite having so many college-educated applicants," the paper adds.
Multinationals tend to prefer hiring sea turtles because they come with better inter-cultural skills.
The head of Human Resources for Greater China at an American real estate consultancy told me earlier this year: "We look for US-educated Chinese staff to take senior positions or join the management track. They tend to be better at adjusting to our working culture, presumably as they have lived abroad. Mostly, our locally educated hires cannot think laterally and lack the confidence to make bold decisions. They are uncomfortable expressing opinions, so as managers we never know what they are thinking."
He said communication between Western managers and locally educated Chinese staff was such a problem his company had resorted to psychometric testing to try and find out exactly how the locals expressed doubt, anger, confidence and other emotions. He added "the tests did not work because they were designed by Westerners for Westerners."
The head of sales training for East Asia at a British recruitment consultancy shares a different but no less worrying view. "It is very, very hard to train locally educated Chinese people how to call potential clients and persuade them to hire us," she said. "They believe it is very wrong to approach someone you do not know, and who is above you in the social hierarchy. They tell me my sales training is un-Chinese."
The IIE data show that the most popular subject for Chinese students to take in America is business/management, at 29% of the total. That may be because American MBAs teach skills such as group work, working in teams with a flat hierarchical structure, and solving real life strategic problems.
The first year of the MBA program at Yale University, for example teaches students "to draw on a broad range of information, tools, and skills to develop creative solutions and make strategic decisions," its website says.
The second and third most popular subjects for Chinese students at US universities, according to the IIE, are engineering and math/computer science. On its website, the school of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard features an interview with an undergraduate about how her studies there unleashed her creativity.
China's problem extends to other countries in East Asia. One American lecturer who teaches English at a privately funded Central Taiwanese university told me a few months back:
"My college just held a cartoon drawing competition for undergraduates, who are obviously aged at least 18. Why this was thought suitable for young adults, I cannot say. Anyway, most of their cartoons were carbon copies of images of Spongebob Squarepants or Bugs Bunny."
Singapore has similar problems. As does South Korea. In this article, a former Korean education minister says the country's students "devote themselves to a style of examination preparation centered around memorization."