China welcomes foreign students, but jobs hard to come by

There were 442,000 foreign students in China last year, more than half of them from Asia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2017, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2017, 11:26pm

Indonesian student Calvin Ho became interested in China in 2013 and applied for a place in a two-year master’s programme in international relations at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University last year.

He said he had been very satisfied with the class discussions, his alumni network and his weekend expeditions, and had hung the medals he earned by finishing two marathons in Beijing on his dormitory wall. But Ho, who is also learning Chinese, said that when it came to the finding a job after his graduation next summer, he admitted he was clueless.

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“I really, really want to work in China, to take advantage of my educational background, but some of my seniors did not get a job and had to return home,” he said. “I think there are campus job fairs, but they are all in Chinese.”

Chinese universities have become increasingly popular with international students, with their numbers rising from 52,150 in 2000 to 442,000 last year. More than half came from Asia, with the next biggest source being Africa.

A survey by the Beijing Language and Culture University in 2001 found a third of foreign students wanted to stay in China to work. A survey of international students at Peking University in 2009 found that 82.7 per cent came to China to study because they wanted a career related to China. A job fair for international students held last year by the Ministry of Education found that 95 per cent of them wanted a job in China.

But the reality has been less encouraging.

There were only 235,000 foreigners with work permits working in China last year, a figure dwarfed by the number of foreign students studying in the country.

“Many foreign students want to stay in China but they can’t,” said Eric Liu, a consultant at Foreign HR, a Beijing-based recruitment agency for foreigners. “If a foreigner graduates from a language course or obtains a bachelor’s degree and wishes to stay on and find a job, they can’t obtain the work permit.”

He said international students needed to have at least two years of post-graduation experience before applying for a work permit, which was a high threshold.

The restriction was loosened a bit in January when the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security allowed postgraduates from “excellent universities” to work in China without work experience.

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“It is understandable that China wants to attract the high-end talent to stay in China,” Liu said. “Compared to some countries, the work policy for foreigners is quite lax.”

He said some foreigners stayed on without work permits, in fields such as English teaching, but they ran the risk of being expelled from China.

Three top universities in Beijing contacted by the South China Morning Post said they did not have a career centre for international students, and nor did they evaluate their employment situation. One university said that was because “many went back home immediately after graduation”.

Even graduates from top universities, now spared the work experience requirement, struggle to find the right job.

“My feeling is it’s not difficult to find a job, but not necessarily the one you want,” said Charlotte Conerly, who graduated with a master’s degree in international relations from Tsinghua University this summer. “It’s very easy to find a job teaching English, or something that needs English speaking or writings skills,” but that was not the career of her dreams.

Conerly, who is from Louisiana in the United States and describes China as her “second home”, said she had portrait photos taken by a professional photographer in March and prepared a résumé in Chinese. She browsed Chinese hiring websites every day and got in contact with headhunters on LinkedIn in the hope of finding a job in China.

“That were three solid months of job hunting and investment in myself,” she said.

She had two job interviews – one with a law firm and the other with a Chinese logistics company that was going global – before finding her current job with the Shanghai office of a company that finds investors for property projects in the US.

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“I think they liked me but when I told them my expected annual salary to be US$50,000, they laughed at me,” she said. “Even my headhunter wouldn’t call me back.”

A former boss during an internship told her about the job she ended up taking in Shanghai.

Malaysian Joker Lai Kok Kiong, who obtained a bachelor’s degree at a university in Fujian and is now studying for a master’s degree in sports industry management in Beijing, agreed it was not difficult to find a job, but it was harder to find one he really liked.

“We can either join a big international firm, where will only be a cog in a machine and the room for promotion is limited, or we can join a start-up company,” he said. “We need to think about the prospects of such companies because some will eventually fail.”

German Jakob Sarne, who graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and is now pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering in Germany, said he hoped to get a job in China because of its rapidly developing economy, but only with a German firm.

Sarne, who spent time as an intern at a German company in Shanghai and is also studying Chinese, said working for a German company in China would provide better benefits and a more ethical environment.

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“I think the work rules are different,” he said. “With a German company you have more public holidays and the benefits are better. I am learning Chinese and trying to pass some tests. Language can be an issue if you want to talk to a higher-up official or if your colleagues don’t speak English at all.”

Ho said he would start searching for a job in March and was hopeful he would land one eventually.

“I am sure many local firms could make use of my education and my background, especially if they want to go global,” he said.