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May 12, 2014

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Humanities feel the squeeze at universities

HIGH school seniors aiming for majors in literature, social science, history or other liberal arts disciplines will find themselves squeezed for opportunity when they take the college entrance exam next month.

Many local universities have been reducing the enrollment of humanities students. The proportion of liberal arts slots available at Shanghai’s top 23 universities this year has dropped 2.5 percentage points from 2013, according to data Shanghai Daily compiled from the Shanghai College Enrollment Catalog released by the Shanghai Educational Examinations Authority.

“By reducing intake, universities are determining students’ futures,” said Ye Hong, deputy director of admissions and graduate employment services at Shanghai University. “It would be a big waste of talent and educational resources if graduates cannot find jobs.”

The shift in educational focus to science, technology and engineering from the humanities has been caused both by government development policies and by a job market hungry for specialized technical skills.

As of March, only about 10 percent of Shanghai college seniors majoring in literature and law had found jobs, decided to study abroad or were admitted to graduate programs. The rate for seniors in all majors was 20 percent.

Alarmed over the poor employment prospects for non-science graduates, the Shanghai Education Commission has asked local universities and colleges to reduce the intake of students in some majors. The hit list included marketing, sociology and social work.

High school students who want good jobs when they graduate from university are certainly poring over enrollment catalogs to determine where their best shots lie. The catalogs list enrollment quotas for different majors.

Shanghai University’s catalog said it plans to recruit 212 humanities students via the college entrance exam this year, accounting for only 15.3 percent of the total enrollment. That’s down 6 percentage points from last year.

Shanghai University of Finance and Economics also reduced the number of humanities students it will accept this year to 79 from 102 last year, while it increased enrollment of science students from 307 to 316.

The trend worries high school seniors like Huang Wenhui, a student at Shanghai No. 8 High School, who will sit the college entrance exam early in June.

She chose history over science in her high school elective courses, and now is wondering if she made a bad choice.

“It’s too late to switch to another subject,” said Huang, 17, who admitted she struggled with math.

“Science is more about logic and calculation, while humanities rely on memory and critical thinking, which I think is more suitable for girls. I’ve also heard that humanities courses are much easier than science.”

Competition getting fiercer

The thought of getting a college degree without much effort resulted in a large increase in numbers of high school students choosing humanities in the past.

From 2010 to 2013, humanities students as a proportion of entrance exam test-takers rose to 46.6 percent from 32.8 percent. In the same period, enrollment of humanities students accounted for about 20 percent to 30 percent of total recruitment at all Shanghai universities.

What the figures show is that competition for college places in non-science disciplines is getting fiercer.

In the past three years, humanities students required higher scores than their science peers to gain admission to top Shanghai universities. Last year for example, the threshold for admission to humanities students was an exam score of 448, while for science students it was 405. That was a record gap.

“If I could do it all over again, I would consider choosing physics over history,” said Fu Yixue, a student at Jianping High School, who is worrying that she may have trouble getting into the university of her choice.

The focus on science education is even affecting popular courses such as business administration and economics. Some universities now want students in those fields to show stronger science and math scores on their entrance exams.

Shanghai University for example has closed its economics and business management majors to any high school student who chose a humanities stream of learning over science.

“We found humanities students with high exam scores often lagging science students with just average scores in terms of math proficiency,” said Ye. “We think humanities students are not suitable for economics and management majors that require math skills.”

The college entrance exam structure greatly influences what subjects students choose to study in high school.

Less onerous

The math portion of the exam given to humanities students is less onerous than the one given to science students. That encourages some students who aren’t interested in math to shy away from the subject in high school.

From the start of their second year in high school, students are required to choose one of three science courses or one of three non-science courses as electives. In the next two years leading up to the college entrance exam, the students generally stay in the tracks they have chosen.

Some college admission officers think the division between science and non-science students in high schools should be abolished. Education should be more interdisciplinary, said Ye.

“Students will be better educated if they are allowed more flexible choices and not pigeon-holed,” she said.

The Ministry of Education is drafting a new college entrance exam and admissions system that may lead to the abolishment of the divisions, according to education insiders.

But for many parents, the focus of education should be jobs, jobs, jobs.

“Parents should respect their children’s choices,” said Qin Jue, whose daughter is at high school. “And the education system should meet the needs of society and the marketplace.”


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