With China’s job market remaining tight, the Ministry of Education seems determined to foster students’ entrepreneurial spirit.
Its new guidance manual on graduation and employment for 2015 encourages undergraduates to take some time off from school to start a business. It also calls on universities to push forward with “innovation and entrepreneurship education” and to offer financial support to students in their startups.
But while the ministry basks in applause for its innovative and progressive approach, it remains doubtful whether the new guide will actually be put into practice and whether it will yield any real benefits for students.
Far from Reality
It’s a little known fact that Chinese universities have always allowed students to pursue business ownership.
While there has never been a specific track for student entrepreneurs, those determined to open a business could apply to temporarily suspend their studies. At Xiamen University, students are allowed to push their four-year undergraduate program to seven years.
Yet cases of students taking advantage of this to start a business are extremely rare.
“A document from the ministry can hardly change this. At best, it might give a few students more entrepreneurial courage,” said a spokesperson for a university in Jiangxi province.
Diplomas are supposed to be granted when a student completes the required number of credits regardless of grades or schooling time. But reality doesn’t always work that way in China, and few schools will allow student entrepreneurs to suspend their studies for more than two years.
Students in China’s schools are managed according to the group in which they are admitted. When they leave the group to pursue other options, they risk being demoted or tossed out when they fail to complete their clauses with the majority of their peers.
Chinese universities have been pushing for a more flexible educational system for years, but a lack of autonomy in school governance prevents any meaningful change.
“It’s possible for the university to grant students a diploma in advance. Two years off is the limit because it’s the government that decides how flexible universities can be,” said the head of the Youth League at Guangxi University who refused to be named.
Unless it is willing to put its support behind a credit-based approach to schooling, the ministry’s latest document appears to be nothing but empty words.
But even if the ministry can resolve its own bureaucratic nightmare, students still may not be willing to risk entrepreneurship.
Universities, parents and society at large do little to encourage innovators.
“Life is separated by stages. When you are in the stage of school education, your job is to focus on study instead of wandering outdoors,” said a teacher at Xiamen University who refused to be named.
“Traditional thinking says that stability should be the final pursuit of students. Entrepreneurs could find themselves having a hard time explaining their decisions to parents and relatives,” said Cai Zhinan, associate director of the Employment Guidance Center at Tsinghua University.
That thinking makes few parents willing to support a budding business owner.
Furthermore, the current education system in Chinese universities leaves little room for entrepreneurship. In many universities, student-initiated entrepreneurial organizations are left to help promote entrepreneurship alone without any guidance or support from professionals.
For undergraduates eagering to enter the business world, initial capital is the ultimate barrier.
Yang Jun, director of Zhengzhou Micro-credit Loans Guarantee Center said that no more than four students succeeded in getting loans before graduation in all of Henan province.
Wu Yanlong was a graduate in Henan Finance and Economics University of Political Science and Law in 2012. As a typical entrepreneur, Wu Yanlong had a lot to say about students applying for start-up loans.
“Indeed, the government grants many preferential policies. The thing is, you have to go to multiple social departments for documents and licenses. The 50,000 yuan limit is far from enough. Even applying for a credit card is easier than securing a start-up loan,” Wu said.
Wang Shuyun is the head of Zhengzhou Employment Guidance Center. She said there are limitations on the policies regarding start-up loans. “The policy is much too tight and lags behind the growing trend of student startups,” she said.
“Most students have trouble finding a suitable guarantor. Once away from home, they have few connections in the city in which they want to start a business.” said the chief of Start-up Loans Management Office at the Henan Human Resource and Social Security Center.
According to recent polls, although more than 60 percent of Chinese students are willing to start a business, less than 1 percent ever try. In the US, nearly a quarter of the students who want to start a business are able.
What Business Brings
Li Hua, director of the Yunnan Employment Agency, is a firm supporter of undergraduates starting their own businesses.
“It goes without saying the nation is taking steps to reform its education system from being examination-oriented to application-oriented. This policy will change university students’ learning behavior,” Li said.
“One or two years of entrepreneurial experience will help a student learn to apply their theoretical studies and identify their personal interests for continued study,” he said.
“For student entrepreneurs, it’s important that we seize every opportunity,” said Li Rong, an entrepreneur and student at Dalian Polytechnic University. “Now I have got one, I will continue my startup at any cost.”
Li Rong said he dreams of a day he won’t have to make excuses for his unusual path to education.