In China, Higher Education Brings Few Guarantees

Almost 7 million college graduates will pour into China’s job market this year, but a large proportion will struggle to find suitable work

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MARK RALSTON / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese job seekers attend an employment fair in Beijing on May 18, 2013. Chinese state media has reported that China will need to find employment for a record number of college graduates this year as the country's economy continues to slow

When Sam Gu was admitted to college four years ago, his parents were ecstatic. His father, an electric welder, and his mother, a cleaner at a hotel in Gu’s hometown of Wuxi, a small city near Shanghai, hoped that their son would vault into the middle class. But the family’s first college graduate is facing a grim job market in a country that desperately needs to employ its best and brightest in order to avoid social instability and trigger a further economic slowdown. “I want to get a job, but the reality is that I do not know where I can find one,” says Gu. “As far as I know, none of my 45 classmates has found a job. This is so frustrating.”

This year almost 7 million college graduates will pour into China’s job market, the highest number ever recorded in the People’s Republic’s history. By the end of April, only 35% of soon-to-be college graduates had found jobs, according to a survey by MyCOS, a data firm in Beijing. Postgraduates were faring even worse, with merely 26% having signed an employment contract. The problem is so severe that it even drew the attention of Xi Jinping, China’s recently named President, who in May met with soon-to-graduate college students in the port city of Tianjin, encouraging them to take even the most grassroots jobs and to “issue extraordinary performances in ordinary job situations.”

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The high unemployment rate among college graduates has several causes. In 1999, the Chinese government decided to expand the country’s higher-education system, in part to stimulate a weak economy still feeling the effects of the Asian financial crisis two years earlier. In 2003, China had 2.12 million university graduates; a decade later, the government estimates the number will reach 6.99 million, the highest in the country’s history.

Yet just as the number of graduates keeps soaring, China’s economy is decelerating. China’s GDP registered 7.7% growth, year on year, during the first three months of 2013, 0.2% lower than in the final quarter last year. Growth that’s just a shade under 8% might sound mighty impressive to many economies struggling with recession, but China, as its leaders have repeatedly stressed, needs such buoyant numbers just to keep its head above water economically. No surprise, then, that only 55% of Chinese companies surveyed by consultancy Mercer said they have campus-recruitment plans for this year. In 2012, 77% had recruited fresh graduates through job fairs and other avenues.

As a transport student at the Wuxi Institute of Communications Technology, a half-century-old institution near Shanghai, Gu hoped to find a job at the local subway company. “When I enrolled in college, I was told that all my classmates would be hired by the local subway company,” Gu tells TIME. “But the local subway company doesn’t have any recruit plans this year.”

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Hoping to take advantage of his impressive English skills — he honed a colloquial style by watching American TV shows — Gu then tried for a job at English-language training schools. “When I went for the interview, I found out that most of my competitors were master students or even doctoral students in English,” he recalls. “The competition is so severe that it makes me feel desperate.”

Exacerbating the situation is the overall quality of China’s higher-education system. Chinese colleges may have proliferated over the past decade, but are all these diplomas worthy? “China’s universities are controlled by the government,” says Xiong Bingqi, the vice director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, an independent think tank in Beijing. “Without university autonomy, the higher-education system cannot teach students how to think independently. As a result, every graduate looks similar, and they do not have core competitiveness and innovation skills.”

Despite more than three decades of market reforms, China’s economy, especially in the service industry, is still dominated by inefficient state-owned enterprises. Private companies, for instance, are totally blocked from the oil, financial and telecom industries. The same goes for the logistics business. “The service industry can absorb more college graduates than the agricultural and manufacturing sectors,” says Xiong. “We should introduce more competition by allowing private companies into the service sector, so there are more job opportunities for the graduates.”

For Gu, the struggle to find a job continues — and he worries about becoming yet another member of the so-called ant tribe, the young, educated underclass barely eking out a living in China’s big cities. Compounding matters, he, like so many of his generation, is an only child, and knows that his parents are counting on him for support after their retirement. “I’m so jealous of those people working in beautiful office buildings,” he says. “I’m very confused and do not know what I will do in the future.”

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156 comments
TheXclass
TheXclass

@NealMcCluskey College isn't for everyone. But your approach makes that determination based on family wealth rather than individual match.

Ayman Farghal
Ayman Farghal

#Obama #CNN #BBC #USA #اوباما Hey Obama What happened in Egypt isn't a military coup but rather a rise for freedom by the Egyptian people supported by the aid of their armed forces. please Stop supporting terrorists http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyYda-F5uaQ

Faten Elmasry
Faten Elmasry

For all American citizens: Greetings, we need your help as a strong& peaceful people against terrorism We need your help by supporting millions of Egyptians Against terrorism, which is supports by Obama & Ann paterson We are trying to end the biggest terrorism groups to save our country and your country too from more 9/11..... Regards for all of you Dear president Obama , What kind of legitimacy from president Anwar AlSadat who killed by those terrorism What kind of legitimacy from killing 16 of our military during fasting What kind of legitimacy from killing & Kidnapping our officers What kind of legitimacy for Storming prisons & enable guilty president What kind of legitimacy For banned group killing people's in streets Enough One year of darkness , misery & Horror of the future Sorry sir if Egyptian dreams of peace and good life are Contrary to your government interests Look what your government interests did in Libya, Iraq & Syria they became inhabited by ghosts. We don't need Your advice to (avoid of any arbitrary arrests of Morsy and his terrorism supporters ) also we don't need your Aid. All what we need just to keep your hands out off our country The legitimacy & democratic only for the sounds of millions of Egyptians revelation As we heard that you have Islamist roots so, I expect you to understand that our one god as Muslims or Christians will help us with our efforts to successful our freedom Also Failure & defeatism for all terrorism & terrorism sponsors Ask about Egypt in Quran & Bible You will understand what am talking about. With lots of respect for our GREAT Egyptian military & proud of our pure own revolution

Keryn Woo
Keryn Woo

It's never been easy for us generation :(

Alice Chien
Alice Chien

@Nazid ...Maybe true but not always. I've been in the workforce for a lonnnngggggggg time and don't think that job politics don't play into this. There are a lot of HATERS out there no matter how smart or educated you are. There are people that just flat out don't like you whether they know you or not. You can't tell me that you never experienced racism, discrimination, etc., etc.....and FEMALES are realllll catty, especially American women.

Alice Chien
Alice Chien

@David Houghton ....I understand that, but it's not that easy. It costs money to start a business and most businesses go out of business. Unless you have really good business sense or KNOW someone who is willing to help you, then I wouldn't even recommend it.

Nazid Goolam Dustagheer
Nazid Goolam Dustagheer

what would happen after such, Jobs looking for graduates, would employ post graduates, m .phil And PHDs,.thats How you tend to make a Strong backbone of the economy And the most talented And most unlucky could Be good/profitable businessman, contractors etc.higher secondary school (BAC) could Be farmers, clé âniers ,factors workers,drivers,sellers of kebab etc, the choices might Be on,making the right décisions could Be yours only for the future.History might have shown ,no institution/class/colar remain in power indefinitely.Glorious ones could take the exit doors first And might Be indefinitely

Nazid Goolam Dustagheer
Nazid Goolam Dustagheer

Perhaps what you might know would give you an indice of who you know And who would know you.

Michael Robert Hakim
Michael Robert Hakim

What happened in Egypt will happen here the people rule the land and not a wealthy 1 percent

NealMcCluskey
NealMcCluskey

@TheXclass Nope. First, prices would likely go way down, esp given technology. Second, any student with good potential wld attract lenders

TheXclass
TheXclass

@NealMcCluskey There is absolutely no reason for prices to go down when demand is sufficient. And lenders are still selective.

TheXclass
TheXclass

@NealMcCluskey That's all I'm saying. I think investing in education for all good minds, regardless of wealth, has a great societal ROI.

TheXclass
TheXclass

@NealMcCluskey I completely agree that reform is needed and funds must be targeted to those who need it. Can't eliminate it, though.

TheXclass
TheXclass

@NealMcCluskey It varies but growing. And plenty of demand for a fixed number of seats. Your plan will make it skyrocket. Supply/demand

NealMcCluskey
NealMcCluskey

@TheXclass How big a % do you think foreigners are in US colleges? And let Americans choose cheaper, more efficient ed. Good for Americans!

TheXclass
TheXclass

@NealMcCluskey So, you'll achieve your goal of squeezing out USA undesirables but you replace them w/ foreign undesirables. Price maintains

TheXclass
TheXclass

@NealMcCluskey You continue to ignore that the best schools are stocked with foreign natls and this grows when you squeeze out the USA poor

NealMcCluskey
NealMcCluskey

@TheXclass Demand will be very different if ppl pay own way. And yes, lenders will be selective. Toward ppl for whom more ed makes sense