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China's Surprising Advice To College Students: Drop Out

As China faces a glut of graduates with fewer employment opportunites, its education ministry is pushing student entrepreneurship, even if it means dropping out.

Wave goodbye to Mao,  Zhejiang University
Wave goodbye to Mao, Zhejiang University
Pang Lijing

BEIJING — To deal with a glut of college graduates, China's education ministry has launched a new campaign of sorts encouraging entrepreneurship among students, and even asking universities to allow students to drop out of school to start businesses.

"Colleges should set up flexible mechanisms to allow students to drop out to undertake ventures," the education ministry's new directive says. "Colleges are to employ successful people — businessmen, investors, and experts — as part-time instructors to provide one-to-one coaching for innovative and entrepreneurial students."

It is big news in China and comes amid soaring employment pressure for China's college graduates. The country had 6.89 million graduates in 2012, and the number this year is expected to grow to 7.49 million.

When she got word of the news, Chen, who founded a company when she was still a college student, immediately took to her WeChat Chinese social media timeline: "Now my parents, professors and classmates who opposed my idea can't say I'm a fool anymore."

Wang, a high school teacher and parent of a college-age child, says that encouraging a flexible education system with students dropping out of school and developing startups will fill a deficiency in higher education. He's convinced that real-life business experience will help college students understand what knowledge they lack, giving them a clearer career goal when they return to study later.

Zhejiang University is a pioneer in this area. The campus in offers 30 entrepreneurship courses, including startup training, startup competition, startup exchanges and incubation. These courses account for 15% of the college's general education curriculum.

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Library at Zhejiang. Photo: Constantboat

The skeptics

But not everyone is pleased with the government's initiative. Liang Yunfeng, founder of a fundraising and startup coaching platform called Venture Valley, says it's absurd that the government is calling on students to become self-employed. "Starting your own business is worthy of encouragement, but you can't advocate it," he says.

Liang says that starting a business requires certain conditions, including expertise and skill. Second, business owners need strong entrepreneurial drive and risk-taking abilities, not to mention mentoring. Hot blood and energy alone are not enough to conquer the challenges of starting a business. On the contrary, it's more likely most youngsters will fail, he says.

"A startup isn't for everyone," he says. "Encouraging college students to throw around their parents' hard-earned money can lead to creating an even poorer group of people."

One parent notes that young people are naturally ambitious, particularly today when schools and society hype success stories. But he's convinced that the new government campaign will discourage college students from concentrating on their studies and devoting themselves to lonely research work. He believes that most parents wouldn't want their children to drop out of school to try business. Indeed, the broader motivation for going to college is for students to gain general knowledge and skills to prepare themselves for later life.

"To a certain extent, encouraging dropping out is a denial of higher education," the parent says. "It's like saying that there are problems in this four-year study system."

Others oppose the new education edict because they believe it's the outcome of the blind expansion of Chinese universities in recent year that turn out masses of graduates who aren't really qualified to join the labor market.

But Wu Xiaocheng, director of Zhejiang University"s student work department, says the school permits students to be self-taught with professorial coaching, and students can still graduate as long as they pass their final exams. Graduation can be postponed for up to six years. But rather than drop out, the university prefers students to complete their studies and start their businesses simultaneously.

Wu points out that a good number of his students are excellent both academically and in obtaining venture funding, and only a very few delay their graduation in order to start a business. "Entrepreneurial education needs to be rational," he says. "Not everyone is made for it."

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