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The Perils of Neglecting China’s Graduates

Cover, Issue 523, June 13

Translated by Qi Changlong
Original article:

Last week Chinese school children completed the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (the Gao Kao). The many who passed the exam will soon become university students. In the meantime, those who went through exactly the same process a few years ago and survived university are now on the threshold of graduation - they will enter the job market. No one doubts that university graduates will become pillars for the revival of this country. Unfortunately, this once highly valued group isn’t accorded the same importance as before.

For a long period in China’s history, university graduates made up the social elite, but in the past few years that faith has begun to collapse. The trend is understandable and inevitable since China’s higher education system has been transformed from one that trained a select few to one that caters for millions. Since the ‘educated elite’ is now everywhere in society, they’re facing a difficult problem: the initial employment rate for college students in 2010, according to officially released data, is 70%, leaving another 1.9 million out of work when they leave campus. That rate increases to 90% after six months; meaning 600,000 are left jobless (many people consider this an underestimate). In 2011, the total number of college graduates will reach to 6.6 million. Even if we accept the statistics, some two million graduates are about to enter the ranks of the unemployed. When you add that to the figures from previous years, it’s clearly a cause for concern. 

Even for the nine in ten graduates who are offered a job within six months, the situation isn’t appealing. According to a report entitled “Employment Among Chinese Graduates in 2011” issued by MyCos, a non governmental agency which collects and evaluates education data, the average monthly income is 2,479 yuan, far less than a ordinary Foxconn employee, and only two thirds of the salary earned by a 20-year-old courier boy in Beijing. As an investment, college education has a negative return. That’s the reverse of how it should be: university students are earning less than laborers. University students in China are frequently compared to an ant tribe, hence the force of the argument that “going to college changes nothing”: some students in rural areas forsake their chance to go to university because they can’t see any benefits. It is becoming a vicious circle.

Many attribute graduates’ lower earnings to the expansion of student numbers in 1999, which is inappropriate. The expansion increased the number of people receiving university education to 100 million, representing 7% of the whole population, which is low compared to Europe and US, or even the Philippines and Thailand. 

Rather than focusing on the growth of student numbers, we ought to look at the way that universities’ expansion has been out of line with the needs of the society. Over the past 10 years, the drive for economic growth has mainly come from low-end manufacturing, which requires a large number of factory workers. The surge in university enrollment has lead to a decline in the number of skilled, factory workers and as a result, university students can’t find satisfactory jobs on a job market that is crying out for factory workers. This is demonstrated by surveys in which 60% of university graduates claim that their current jobs don’t coincide with their career expectations.

If laborers are earning higher wages than university students, it doesn’t mean laborers’ wages are high. Taking laborers and university students as a whole, it’s clear that their wages on average are relatively low, compared with capital gains. The wages of migrant workers, which make up the vast majority of the laborers, have received a lot of attention, but the wages of university graduates have been overlooked. The abnormal wage situation can be reversed by promoting reforms of university education that strengthen the link between university education and the needs of social and economic development. We noticed that the Minister of Education, Yuan Guiren, covered this topic when he talked about employment among university graduates in 2010.

However, the top priority now for the government is to recognize university students’ concerns, especially when it comes to the issue that “graduation represents unemployment for millions” [毕业即失业]. The State Council recently asked local governments at the provincial level to cancel a restriction, part of the hukou registration system, which prevents graduates from staying in cities as they seek work. We think that the government should broaden employment opportunities by increasing the service sector’s share in the economy. Otherwise, more university students will be forced to work in sectors like agriculture, manufacturing and mining where they usually will lose all the benefits of their education.

We must take care of university students since the future of this country depends on them. China will finish restructuring its economy in the next ten years and university students will be the main source of talent. It needs to be accepted that there are many owners of university diplomas who have been pushed to the corner of cities to join the ant tribe [蚁族] or become boomerang kids [啃老族]. We won’t be able to the destabilizing effects on society of these men and women at its edge. 

External Links

The Diplomat: The Sad Truth of China\'s Education

South China Morning Post: A university degree in China use to be a ticket to instant success

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