China gets postgraduate blues
By Robert Hartmann

HONG KONG - There are signs that Chinese students' enthusiasm for pursuing higher degrees is on the wane, largely because holding a master's degree or doctorate no longer offers any guarantee of finding a suitable job. In fact it can even be a handicap, as employers are increasingly choosing applicants who have practical work experience over those with impressive academic qualifications.

Rapid expansion of higher education - especially graduate schools - in the past decade has increasingly made it more difficult for higher-degree holders to find employment than undergraduate-degree holders.

According to figures from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the total number of candidates enrolling for the master's programs nationwide this year is roughly the same as in 2006. However, in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, the number has dropped considerably.

In Beijing, for example, there are about 5,000 fewer applicants for master's programs this year than last year. At elite Tsinghua University alone, the total number of applicants has decreased this year by 1,000, to 12,000.

The MOE said the change shows university undergraduate students now have a more practical attitude toward postgraduate education. More and more now prefer to start looking for employment after receiving their bachelor's degree. This allows them to gain practical experience and skills as early as possible, a prudent move in a job market where employers now prefer experience over educational background.

Wu Bin, director of the School of Postgraduates at Beijing Industrial University, attributes the decreasing tendency to pursue higher degrees to fierce competition in the job market, which forces students to be more practical. The undeniable fact now is that obtaining a higher degree does not necessarily guarantee a good future, so it is mainly those who really want to pursue an academic career who choose that path.

"The present decrease in the number of candidates for graduate studies is a good thing," remarked Lin Jianhua, vice president of Peking University, "for the students begin to [put] more emphasis on enhancing skill and ability rather than blindly pursuing a certificate of a higher degree. This will improve the employment situation and lead to keeping a proper ratio between graduate and postgraduate students."

Government statistics show that among the 200,000 university graduates in Beijing in 2007, some 50,000 hold higher degrees, up 25% from last year.

On October 19, Beijing launched its job-market recruitment fair for this year's university graduates. The fair was at once thronged with job seekers who were to leave school this summer. On that day, 849 jobs offered by 32 employers attracted more than 2,000 postgraduates. They formed long queues to wait to hand in their resumes. The majority of the employers were relatively unknown small and medium-sized enterprises. The few larger ones joining the recruitment campaign were such enterprises as the National Defense Publishing House and Tsinghua Tongfang Visio Co Ltd.

The National Defense Publishing House received 200 applicants at the fair, but none of them dared to state expected salaries, which suggests that "even higher-degree holders have lowered their expectations", a company staffer at the fair said. University students now simply want a job ... any job. Earlier reports said many were satisfied with salaries even lower than those of housemaids.

In 1982, there were only 11,000 postgraduate students across the country, while in 2006, the number grew by 30 times to reach 340,000, mainly thanks to the education authorities' decision to expand postgraduate student enrollment in 1999.

Female postgraduates are in an even worse position than men when seeking employment, because employers often believe they will leave their jobs after getting married and having children.

Higher-degree holders now have to travel across the country to compete with undergraduates for jobs that do not require high qualifications, but skill, experience, enthusiasm, a modest mindset and the capacity to adapt. In all these respects, ordinary university graduates seem to be in a better position than those holding higher degrees.

The percentage of graduates who sign job contracts prior to graduation has been decreasing year after year. There was a drop from 68.2% to 40% for graduates and from 76.7% to 40.7% for postgraduates in 2005 over 2003.

So great is the problem that the government is now encouraging university graduates, as well as college and vocational-school graduates, to work in the countryside.

A document issued by the State Council, China's cabinet, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party outlines key policies to boost rural development. According to the document, the government will improve policies and regulations that encourage more college and vocational-school graduates to start their careers in the countryside.

The government promises that graduates will be given priority when seeking new jobs in governmental departments or large companies after three years' service in the countryside.

Robert Hartmann is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong.

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