As a record number of graduates prepare to leave China's universities, many returnees are struggling to make a mark. Zou Shuo reports.
(CAI MENG / CHINA DAILY)
A degree from a university overseas was once regarded as the calling card for better employment opportunities. However, graduates returning to China are now realizing that studying abroad no longer guarantees a well-paid job.
Many are disappointed with the relatively low salaries and less competitive positions they are being offered as a result of the rising numbers of returnees and a surge in graduates from domestic institutions in recent years.
The bad news for them is that competition is set to become even more cutthroat because China's universities are expected to produce a record 8.2 million graduates this year, according to the Ministry of Education.
Going abroad to study is no longer just for the elite
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing
A recent report released by the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing, shows that about 45 percent of graduate returnees are earning less than 6,000 yuan (US$945) a month, while 23 percent make between 6,000 and 8,000 yuan.
The salaries are chicken feed compared with the high cost of overseas study, which has risen to an average 300,000 yuan per annum as foreign universities look to earn extra revenue from international students, the report said.
However, experts believe overseas education should not be viewed purely from the perspective of return on investment, because the experience can help students develop valuable, nonacademic skills
When Guo Shuai, 26, saw the Disney movie High School Musical as a middle school student, he became determined to study in the United States.
Unlike the high-pressure, test-oriented school system with which he was familiar, the movie presented an alternative: a carefree atmosphere where students were independent and free to speak their minds, and enjoyed a wide range of social activities.
So, when he graduated from Zhengzhou University in Henan province in June 2015, Guo did not hesitate to move to Fort Hays State University in Kansas to study for a master's in business administration.
When he arrived, though, his rosy image of the US faded a little; the schedule at the university was much more intense than he had expected, and he found it difficult to blend in and make friends. Moreover, in addition to mid-term and final exams, set papers and tests were scheduled throughout the semester.
"I was almost fully occupied with the heavy workload at school, so I did not have much time to apply for internships," he said.
When he returned to China, Guo found that his overseas degree did not make him stand out in the competitive job market.
"Since I had not applied for internships in the United States, the only thing that made me valuable to employers was my language skills."
He spent more than three months unemployed before securing a job as a translator at a financial company in Shanghai, earning about 8,000 yuan a month.
Jiang Yuqiong, 25, had also harbored a dream of studying abroad since childhood, looking to broaden her horizons and see the world. She also hoped that an overseas degree would give her an edge in the domestic job market.
However, when she finished a master's in accounting and finance at Durham University in the United Kingdom last year, she discovered that her qualification actually made her less competitive than graduates from schools in China.
She applied to the auditing departments at the "Big Four" accountancy firms - KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Ernst & Young - but didn't receive any replies, let alone job offers.
"In my opinion, the big four prefer students with bachelor's degrees for those jobs because they can pay them less," she said.
After spending the "longest" four months doubting her abilities and the value of her education, Jiang finally landed a job as a consultant at a multinational management company in Shanghai, earning more than 10,000 yuan a month.
Returnees chat with prospective employers at a job fair in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. (XUAN HUI / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Neither Guo nor Jiang regrets studying overseas, despite the heavy financial burden - Guo paid 400,000 yuan for his two-year program, while Jiang's 12 months of study cost 300,000 yuan - because they hoped the experience would help them earn decent salaries in their first jobs.
However, for Liu Zeyang, overseas study came at a much higher cost.
In 2013, Liu quit his studies at Wuhan University during his sophomore year, because he felt the school was not offering him the quality of education he had expected.
He persuaded his parents to send him to the US to attend a pre-university language school. Following that, he moved to the University of Maryland where he majored in finance, a field his family thought would help him secure a good job.
To help fund his studies, his parents sold a property they owned and gave him more than 1 million yuan.
"Knowing that my parents had sold the property, my feelings were complicated; I told myself that I must study hard to repay their sacrifice," the 24-year-old said.
However, he was not interested in finance and found the course too demanding and stressful.
"After three semesters at the university, I applied to postpone my graduation and returned to Beijing last year."
After he returned, Liu worked for two startups, but he quit his jobs to start a business selling healthy meals to people who want to lose weight.
A growing trend
Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, said China's economic growth and rising household incomes mean more parents are willing to send their children overseas to study.
"Going abroad to study is no longer just for the elite," he said.
According to a survey of 6,217 people who plan to study overseas, conducted by Vision Overseas Consulting Co and Kantar Millward Brown, the students' main objectives are to broaden their horizons and gain a wide range of experience.
The survey found that 73 percent of respondents plan to return to China after graduation, while 40 percent simply want to enhance their resumes.
Ministry of Education data show that in 2007, only 44,000 people returned to China after studying overseas, but last year, the number had risen to 480,900.
However, the number of people choosing to study abroad during the same period only rose from 144,000 to 608,400, according to the ministry.
Shi Yan, of the Chivast Education International consultancy in Beijing, said more people are returning to China because they are finding it difficult to land jobs overseas and the domestic employment market is more appealing.
However, she added that one of the biggest obstacles to securing a job is that they miss the prime job-seeking season.
"In China, the job-seeking season for graduates starts in October or November, which is when most employers start accepting resumes and doing interviews," she said.
"However, most Chinese students studying overseas will only graduate and be ready to apply for jobs in May."
Zhao Hongxue, a senior human resources expert at Huicai International Management Consulting in Beijing, said finding a job has not been easy in recent years because of the rising number of students graduating from domestic universities.
The deeper talent pool means businesses are now paying more attention to the personalities and abilities of prospective employees, regardless of academic status or family background, and irrespective of whether they are domestic students, graduates returning from overseas or expats, she said.
However, overseas study still provides returnees with one advantage, according to Zhao - their experience tends to make them more independent and equips them with a global mindset and better communication skills, which are all important for future promotion opportunities.
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