China’s sluggish growth hits global education

The economic downturn, soaring youth unemployment and changing career aspirations have left China – and Western universities that rely on students from the world’s most populous country – facing an uncertain future.

A record 10.8 million Chinese university students are expected to graduate by mid-2022, even as economic growth stagnates at 0.4% – the lowest in more than 30 years, except for China. a brief contraction at the start of the pandemic – and youth unemployment hit historic highs. Heights.

Educators do not know where this will lead. One possibility is that Chinese demand for global higher education is waning as families decide the returns no longer justify the huge investments. The reverse could also happen, with the Chinese seeking to distinguish themselves through ever more prestigious qualifications. A third possibility is that young people are rejecting China’s sluggish job market for more promising overseas options, using international studies as an exit strategy.

According to data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics in July, some 19.3 percent of urban 16-24-year-olds in China were unemployed in the April-June quarter. Political analyst Angela Lehmann said she expects the rate to climb even higher, with levels as high as 23% expected later this year.

“Youth unemployment is always seasonal [with a] peak in July and August, then it usually levels off in October,” said Dr. Lehmann, head of research at international education consultants The Lygon Group. “But compared to previous years, this number is much higher – and we are on the verge of reaching the great class of 2022.”

In response, Chinese universities reportedly withhold qualifications until students find work, in a bid to inflate employment rates for institutional graduates. Jin Li, acting vice president of Shenzhen Southern University of Science and Technology, said would have urged the authorities to approve more postgraduate and dual degree programs and to allow “a more flexible university system” where students can stay at university “for an extra year or two”.

The government pushes in the opposite direction by encouraging vocational studies and downplaying the value of pursuing a university education in an effort to reduce the number of graduates.

Zhong Zhou, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, said Chinese authorities are trying to change the school’s pressure cooker environment by reduce homework and exam stress in a conscious attempt to change China’s cultural reverence for high-level education above all other options.

In the latest example, authorities appear to have relaxed a default failure rate of 50% for the high school entrance exam – the Zhongkao – which governs admission to general secondary schools giving access to university.

Dr Zhong said the notoriously difficult exam had become “softer” as authorities tried to “blur the line” between academic and vocational education. “This year especially, people got really similar exam scores because the exam wasn’t that hard. People have more choice, apparently, to go to the school they want.

Amid the labor market turmoil, there are signs that lucrative corporate positions in malls such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are losing their appeal, with candidates turning instead to relatively secure public sector jobs – and more often based in the provinces. Last year, Chinese national civil service examination application surpassed 2 million for the first time. “There is a redirection of life values,” Dr. Zhong said.

A 2021 survey of returning international students by online recruitment platform Zhaopin found that they were increasingly motivated by factors such as work-life balance and commuting times. Chinese job seekers are “thinking more about these kinds of issues, as are post-Covid graduates around the world,” Dr Lehmann said.

She described youngsters talking about “staying flat” after retiring from high-flying careers and the Lifestyle “996” this involves working 12-hour days, six days a week – a practice that was once a badge of honor but is increasingly used as a tongue-in-cheek insult – but labor market conditions could also prompt them to “explore different options” outside of China.

Traditionally, international students from China were “looking to get their piece of paper and go home and find a job. It’s not that easy anymore. I think we might start to see younger students looking to leave China. Post-study labor rights for Chinese students, and even migration pathways, have never been more important than they are now,” Dr. Lehmann said.

She added that the ‘jury is out’ on whether the spike in youth unemployment is a ‘permanent change’ or a ‘tough blow’ exacerbated by Covid and other recent developments, like China’s crackdown on tutoring after school, which has eroded jobs for graduates in areas such as teaching and performing. “But I suspect we’re looking at something longer term.”

Internet searches for terms related to immigration to other countries would have increased by almost 30 times following the recent Covid lockdown in Shanghai. Yun Jiang, Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs Think Tank, observed that China’s zero Covid policy had exacerbated the disillusionment of educated urban youth and forced them “to choose between living in China and living abroad”.

James Laurenceson, director of the Institute of Australia-China Relations at the University of Technology Sydney, said political disaffected in China have long viewed Western education as a “bulletproof” option against oppression. “The new overlay is that the domestic economic opportunities in China aren’t as attractive as they used to be. for economic reasons.

Oxford University international education expert Simon Marginson said tight political control is unlikely to trigger mass departures unless political conditions worsen significantly. “The idea that tighter economic conditions in China might encourage ‘leaky’ emigration is intriguing, but I doubt the wheels of the economy have fallen that far,” he said.

He added that international studies required “getting out of the national positioning market” for a few years, which, given the heightened domestic competition for jobs, increased the risks of going abroad. This, alongside the growing value of Chinese credentials, means that the tendency to travel is likely to be reduced “everything else [being] equal,” he continued.

Professor Marginson stressed that this was a “call for judgement”, with little evidence on how China’s economic downturn affected the international study. But he said while China’s economic growth remained subdued by recent standards, higher education enrollment growth was also likely to slow. “Unemployed graduates will continue to accumulate and the government will want to slow down this process. The government has enough leverage to alter the pattern of education growth if it wishes.

This would in turn affect schooling policy and throughout higher education, likely affecting the growth of “less than 2% of this population going overseas. But the period of strong growth in education is not over yet,” noted Professor Marginson.

Yixiao Zhou, deputy director of the Chinese economics program at the Australian National University, said she expected China’s high youth unemployment rate to be a blow. But the recovery would be slow, with the competitive labor market influencing students’ choice of specialization and institutional choices about “what kind of degrees you create for students.”

Dr. Zhou noted a widely held view that China has “too many university graduates. They do jobs that don’t really require a college degree. There is a lack of so-called average skills [needed for] highly skilled jobs. »

But she said Chinese demand for international education would remain buoyant in the long term, with students drawn to study abroad for their “personal fulfilment” as well as career opportunities. Any moderation in demand due to the weak labor market would mainly affect lower-ranked universities, she added.

“The market could become more concentrated – the strong get stronger and the weak lose market share again.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com