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China’s sluggish growth brings uncertainty for global education

Soaring youth unemployment could spur outward flight or lead young people to turn away from ambitions of studying abroad

Article by: John Ross (Times Higher Education) quoting Dr Angela Lehmann, Head of Research (The Lygon Group)

A record 10.8 million Chinese university students are due to graduate in mid-2022, just as economic growth stalls to 0.4 per cent – the lowest in more than 30 years, apart from a brief contraction at the pandemic’s outset – and youth unemployment soars to historic heights.

Educationalists are unsure where this will lead. One possibility is that Chinese demand for global higher education will fade, as families decide that the returns no longer justify the huge investments. The reverse could also occur, with Chinese people seeking to distinguish themselves with ever more prestigious qualifications. A third possibility is that young people reject China’s sluggish labour market for more promising overseas options, using international study as an exit strategy.

Some 19.3 per cent of China’s urban 16- to 24-year-olds were unemployed in the April-June quarter, according to data released by China's National Bureau of Statistics in July. Policy analyst Angela Lehmann said she expected the rate to climb higher still, with levels as high as 23 per cent predicted later this year.

“Youth unemployment is always seasonal [with a] peak in July and August, and then it usually settles down in October,” said Dr Lehmann, head of research with international education consultants The Lygon Group. “But compared to the years before, this number is way higher – and we’re about to hit the big graduation class of 2022.”

In response, Chinese universities have allegedly withheld qualifications until students find work, in a ploy to inflate institutional graduate employment rates. Jin Li, acting vice-president of Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, has reportedly urged authorities to approve more postgraduate and dual-degree programmes and permit “a more flexible academic system” where students can stay at university “for an extra year or two”.

The government is pushing in the opposite direction by encouraging vocational study and playing down the value of pursuing an academic education in an attempt to reduce the number of graduates.

Zhong Zhou, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, said Chinese authorities were trying to change the pressure-cooker environment of schooling by reducing homework and exam stress in a conscious attempt to change China’s cultural veneration for top-flight education above all other options.

In the latest example, authorities appear to have relaxed a default 50 per cent failure rate for the senior high school entrance examination – the Zhongkao – which governs admission into the general secondary schools that provide access to university.

Dr Zhong said the notoriously difficult exam had become “more soft” as authorities tried to “blur the distinction” between academic and vocational education. “This year, in particular, people got really similar examination scores because the examination was not that difficult. People have more choice, apparently, to go to whatever school they want.”

Amid the turmoil in the jobs market, there are signs that lucrative corporate positions in commercial hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are losing some of their allure, with applicants turning to comparatively secure – and more often provincially based – public sector employment instead. Last year, candidature for China’s national civil service exam exceeded 2 million for the first time. “There’s 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 commute times. Chinese jobseekers “are thinking more around these kinds of issues, much like graduates around the world after Covid”, Dr Lehmann said.

She has described young people talking about “lying flat” after opting out of high-flying careers and the “996” lifestyle that involves working 12 hours a day, six days a week – a practice that was once a badge of honour but is increasingly used as an ironic slur – but labour market conditions could also spur them to “explore different options” outside China.

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

She added that the “jury’s out” on whether soaring youth unemployment is a “permanent shift” or a “blip” exacerbated by Covid and other recent developments, like China’s crackdown on after-school tutoring, which eroded graduate jobs in areas such as teaching and interpreting. “But I suspect we’re looking at something more long term.”

Internet searches on terms related to immigration to other nations reportedly rose almost 30-fold following Shanghai’s recent Covid lockdown. Yun Jiang, a fellow with the Australian Institute of International Affairs thinktank, 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 overseas”.

James Laurenceson, director of the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute, said political malcontents in China had long viewed Western education as a “bolt-hole” option against oppression. “The new overlay is that the domestic economic opportunities in China are not as attractive as they were. If anything, that’s going to add to the incentive to hedge your bets – not just for political motivations but for economic ones, too.”

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

He added that international study necessitated “stepping out of the domestic positional market” for a few years, which, given the intensified domestic competition for jobs, increases the risks of going abroad. This, alongside the rising value of Chinese credentials, means the tendency to travel is likely to be reduced “all else [being] equal”, he continued.

Professor Marginson stressed that this was a “judgement call”, with little evidence about how China’s economic downturn was affecting international study. But he said that while Chinese economic growth remained muted by recent standards, growth in tertiary enrolments was also likely to soften. “Unemployed graduates will keep piling up and government will want to slow that process. Government has enough levers to change the pattern of educational growth if it wants.”

This in turn would affect policy in schooling and throughout tertiary education, likely affecting growth in the “less than 2 per cent of that population who go abroad. But the high education growth period is not over yet,” Professor Marginson noted.

Yixiao Zhou, deputy director of Australian National University’s China Economy Program, said she expected high youth unemployment in China to be a blip. But recovery would be slow, with the competitive job market influencing students’ choice of majors and institutional choices about “what kind of degrees you create for students”.

Dr Zhou noted a widespread view that China had “too many university-educated students. They are employed in jobs that don’t really require a university degree. There’s a lack of the so-called medium skills [needed for] very highly trained occupations.”

But she said Chinese demand for international education would remain buoyant in the long term, with students attracted to foreign study for “personal growth” as well as career opportunities. Any moderation of demand due to the weak labour market would primarily affect lower ranked universities, she added.

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

Article published by Times Higher Education, 4 August 2022

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