The tide is turning: studying and working in China

About seven or eight years ago, the foreign students I met in China were almost always studying Sinology. Since then, I have met more and more studying all sorts of subjects. Part of the reason is that the Chinese government keeps adding more levels of scholarships, the latest being the ‘Belt and Road’ scholarships. And part of the reason is that the prospects of employment after graduation have become a whole lot easier for foreign students. More importantly, people are attracted to a a rising power, with a difference: the Communist Party is in power and the socialism they are promoting is to improve the lives of everyone. As for my own interests, I find that international students want to come to China to study, especially in Marxism!

On the other side, of the more than half a million Chinese students who went overseas to study in the last year, the job prospects are not as good as they used to be. Now they find themselves in the mix with almost 8 million Chinese graduates. Those who studied overseas used to believe that a foreign degree would give them a fast track to a better job. But employers here have become more wary. They are not so readily able to evaluate the overseas qualification, and Chinese qualifications have come to be regarded as equal to foreign qualifications.

This issue has a number of levels. To begin with, many foreign universities still tend to regard China as a huge student mine. They see the Chinese tendency to save and then spend money on education as a way to deal with increasing budget shortfalls at home, as governments cut university budgets. This practice has begun to raise suspicions in China about the quality of overseas qualifications. Further, Chinese universities have been lifting their international game, so that they are increasingly on par with other universities overseas. Further, stories in China of graduates from foreign universities finding it difficult to get a good job in China have raised the question about whether it is really that useful to gain a foreign qualification.

So a shift is underway: more foreign students in China, questions about the quality of overseas qualifications. One of the signs of a rising power is not that people come to it for education and employment, rather than heading overseas.

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8 thoughts on “The tide is turning: studying and working in China

  1. There are quite a lot of Chinese students at our local university, but I agree that they are seen as a ‘cash cow’, with high fees charged. Hopefully, the trend to giving local degrees more credence will mean better facilities at Chinese universities, along with that prestige.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. To the extent that Chinese students abroad brought back technical know-how that was not available in China, it made sense for the PRC to send them out in the world with the prospect of them contributing to the country’s skills-pool in the future. It’s a bit different with the humanities though; I always felt that Chinese students in western universities studying history or politics where either convinced liberal oppositionists, or had to negotiate a pretty tricky intellectual path between fitting into their scholarly community and maintaining their loyalty to the PRC. I do wonder if in the future, we’ll see some western students facing the same challenges in China.

    1. I often find that foreign students in China are quite ignorant of the political situation and history, although they want to find out about it, not least because of China’s extraordinary return to being a world power.
      A number of other factors may also play a role in Chinese students studying abroad. 10 years ago, some 60-65% would stay abroad and find work; now 80% or more return to China (while the number of those going has quadrupled). Further, while there is still a sense that China needs to ‘catch up’, this is beginning to fade in light of the fact that it is also making more and more breakthroughs that are leaving the rest of the world behind. The skill-pool has obviously increased significantly. Add to this a greater confidence: the government is keen for as many students and junior teachers as possible to spend a year abroad. This is now wider than gaining usable skills, for it includes direct experience of different cultures and political systems. The confidence lies in the assumption that Chinese people will gain a sense of how other places work, draw upon what is best in such places, but also realise the positive dimensions of China itself.

      1. Your point about the state encouraging Chinese youth to travel is quite significant, especially in light of the standard narrative of socialist states restricting people’s freedom of movement. In fact, the early USSR tried to promote travel both within its borders and abroad (see on this Diane Koenker’s Club Red). It was security concerns, as well as loosing much needed skilled labour that prompted the Soviets to maintain a much stricter right to travel policy. That the PRC feels so confident in its own strength (and attractiveness to its citizens) is a fascinating historical development.

      2. China has gone through the experience of losing a large number of those who stayed overseas after studying – even up to ten years ago this was a tendency. By contrast, these days not only is there increasing confidence about China at many levels, but those who do stay overseas for various reasons tend to promote China’s interests – feeding into a curious paranoia in some places (like the Australian ruling elite) about the long reach of the CPC.

      3. How long do you reckon it will be until western ruling elites start worrying about western academics working in China becoming sinified?

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