Academic tide

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2011, 12:00am


Auniversity degree in China used to be a ticket to instant success in a country where tertiary education was rare and valued. No longer. Like many things in China, from exporting shoes to building high-speed trains, there has been a Great Leap Forward in advanced education that leads to doubts about its quality and value in real life.

More than seven million Chinese students are expected to graduate from the country's universities this summer, an astonishing five-fold increase over the number 10 years ago.

China has overtaken the United States as the biggest conferrer of PhDs in the world, with 50,000 new ones in 2009, compared to 10,000 just 10 years earlier. In addition, a total of 1.27 million Chinese are studying abroad, according to the Ministry of Education, the largest number of any country worldwide. Last year alone, 285,000 Chinese went abroad to study, 24 per cent more than in 2009. Most popular is the US, followed by Australia, Japan, Britain, South Korea, Canada and Singapore.

Such a spectacular increase in talent has made job-hunting increasingly difficult for graduates. It also raises questions over the quality of education, when degrees are conferred so easily, even to those who do not deserve them.

In this rush to get more formal education, many overlook the fact that success in China requires more than academic qualifications. Connections, political acuity, social skills, personality and hard work matter more - aspects of life about which the new generation of Chinese have much to learn outside school.

Still, Chinese parents will continue to invest their hard-earned savings in their children's education, in the belief that more degrees will lead to a better job and a larger salary.

I personally know of many such cases. The father of Liang Mingwei, for one, has his son's life well planned. After completing a bachelor's degree in China, he will study in the US for two years to get a masters, with his father paying the full study and living costs of 700,000 yuan (HK$840,000). Then he will return to Beijing, marry and have two children, whom he can entrust to his parents if he wishes to pursue his career in another city.

'He wants me to get these basics done first and then I can continue with my life,' said Liang with a wry smile. Instead, he chose a one-year masters course in Hong Kong because he felt the US costs were too high and unrecoverable, and would put too large a burden on his family.

Across China, there are tens of thousands of parents like Mr Liang, a manager in a state petrochemical firm, who himself worked his way up the ranks of the bureaucracy, thanks to professional qualifications he earned with enormous effort. He has seen some of his peers do even better, with the help of a foreign degree.

But times have changed. The enormous number of returnees is devaluing their degrees. What they have is not as special as it was 10 years ago and much less special than 20 years ago. As the wits call it, the haigui, the green turtles, have become the haidai, seaweed.

Both terms play on a homonym: haigui also means overseas returnees, while haidai is shorthand for returnees who are waiting for a job. Graduates no longer automatically get the well-paid job in a multinational firm that they believed they would.

Life is even tougher for those with home-grown degrees. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, more than 30 per cent of graduates in 2008 failed to find work. For those who do, the average starting salary will be about 1,500 yuan. A majority want to work in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and the big cities of the east and south, where competition is fierce and living costs are high. There are many opportunities in the centre and the west - but few are willing to go there. Young Chinese will have to adjust their expectations about life, a tough process since most are pampered at home as the only child in the family. My friend Liang is already getting the first taste of real life after school, receiving many rejection letters and facing the prospect of a low-paid job with long hours in a small firm in Hong Kong.

Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong