Prestige degrees losing their shine in China

Polls show higher jobless rates among graduates of courses like law, business

By The Straits Times China Bureau
22 March 2010

Young Chinese who rushed to study law or business in universities in the past few years are finding that it does not quite pay off.

While their counterparts in other countries may be in demand, law and business graduates in China are struggling to land a job.

Last year, survey after survey of fresh graduates in China surprised educationists when the findings showed that unemployment was the highest among those who took ‘prestigious’ courses.

These courses – law, business administration, computer science and international trade – showed unemployment rates that were up to 7 percentage points higher than the average.

Experts say the students, and their parents, were attracted by the prestige surrounding these degrees. And schools, sensing an opportunity to cash in, set up new departments to attract students even though they did not have the instructors or facilities to run decent courses.

The rising jobless numbers among such graduates are coming to light now. Stiffer competition triggered by the growing graduate population is part of the problem.

Unemployment among fresh graduates has been rising for many years. Critics blame the government for vastly expanding university intake – from 1.07 million undergraduates in 2000 to seven million this year – without preparing the schools or the economy sufficiently for it.

But experts say the latest problem is specific to certain courses.

There are more than 500 different undergraduate courses being offered in China. But studies show unemployed graduates are highly concentrated in just a handful of programmes, according to Dr. Wang Boqing, a researcher with MyCOS consultancy and the author of one of the survey reports.

‘These programmes are the ones that are severely imbalanced,’ he said.

This is especially so for law courses.

Spurred by evidence of an increasingly litigious society and by stories about millionaire lawyers, parents herded their children into law schools. To meet this demand, the number of Chinese universities offering the course jumped from 334 in 2002 to 634 within six years.

But the labour market proved incapable of soaking up all these fresh lawyers. In 2008, one in five still could not find a job six months after graduation.

‘There were simply too many schools churning out low-quality law students,’ said Professor Cao Yisun of the China University of Political Science and Law.

The government needs to adopt a two-pronged approach to address the problem, which also plagues other troubled programmes.

First, reward the right schools.

Currently, universities can receive more government funding if they set up more departments and rebrand themselves as ‘comprehensive universities’.

‘This rewards the wrong type of behaviour, encouraging them to start all kinds of new courses, whether or not they have the capabilities,’ said Professor Li Baomin, a labour market economist at Henan University.

Incentives should be given to those that specialise in a core number of subjects and gain a reputation for producing well-equipped graduates, he added.

Second, change the mindset of students as well as the attitude of their parents.

All too often, parents in China favour courses that give them ‘face’ or make them feel superior to friends and neighbours, according to observers. These courses are usually measured by how high their cut-off scores are. The higher the cut-off score, the more difficult it is to get into the faculty.

In contrast, some programmes whose degrees offer good job prospects – such as automobile-related ones – have lower cut-off scores.

That is why, Dr. Wang said, the government should publicise the job prospects that come with the various degrees.

And if this fails to work, then the parents and their children will just have to learn their lesson the hard way. Said Prof Li: ‘After all, everyone has to succumb to the forces of the labour market in the end.’


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