Graduation was getting closer, but Yang Xiaomin, a 21-year-old student in northeast China, skipped her university’s job fair. Nor did she look for positions alone. She didn’t think she had a chance of landing one.
“Some jobs won’t even take resumes from people with bachelor’s degrees,” said Ms. Yang, who passed the national graduate school entrance exam along with a record 3.77 million of her colleagues last month. “Going to graduate school won’t necessarily help me find a better job, but at least it gives me more options.”
China’s economy has largely recovered from the coronavirus pandemic. The data released on Monday shows it may be the only major economy that has grown over the past year. Yet one area is sorely lacking: the supply of desirable, well-paid jobs for the rapidly growing number of university graduates in the country. Most of the recovery was driven by labor sectors such as manufacturing, which the Chinese economy remains heavily reliant on.
With government encouragement, many students are turning to a stopgap solution: stay in school. The Chinese Ministry of Education announced at the height of the outbreak that it would order universities to increase the number of master’s candidates by 189,000, an increase of nearly 25 percent, in an attempt to reduce unemployment. Undergraduate slots would also increase by more than 300,000.
Almost four million hopefuls took the graduate entrance exam last month. This corresponds to an increase of almost 11 percent compared to the previous year and more than double the figure compared to 2016.
Schools are a common landing site in times of economic uncertainty, but in China the urge to expand enrollment has been a long-term problem. Even before the pandemic, the country’s graduates complained that there were not enough suitable jobs. Official employment figures are unreliable, but authorities said in 2014 that the unemployment rate among college graduates was up to 30 percent in some areas two months after graduation.
As a result, many Chinese have feared that expanding college graduate slots will increase already fierce competition for jobs, dilute the value of advanced degrees, or postpone an unemployment crisis. “Are graduate students under siege?” read the headline of a government-controlled publication.
In recent years, the Communist Party has often linked the prosperity of college graduates not only to economic development but also to “social stability”, and fears that they could be a source of political unrest if their economic fortunes were to falter .
However, to keep unemployment among these workers low, the government must also be careful not to raise its hopes, said Joshua Mok, a professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who studies China’s education policy. “It can create a false expectation for these highly skilled people,” said Professor Mok. “The Chinese government must pay attention to how these expectations can be dealt with.”
The government’s expansion push is part of a broader, decade-long effort to increase university enrollment. According to official statistics, China had fewer than 3.5 million undergraduate and graduate students in 1997. In 2019 there were more than 33 million excluding online schools and adult higher education institutions.
The number of university degrees per capita is still behind that of the industrialized countries. According to government statistics, there are around two doctoral students for every 1,000 Chinese, and around nine in the United States. Still, China’s economy has not kept pace with the rapid expansion of higher education, with each round of new graduates competing for a small pool of jobs.
The pandemic has exacerbated these concerns. A report from Zhaopin, China’s largest job-recruiting platform, found that 26.3 percent of college graduates were unemployed in 2020 last June. According to the report, jobs for recent college graduates decreased 7 percent from the same period last year, while the number of applicants rose nearly 63 percent.
“What the current Chinese economy needs is more people with technical qualifications than just general degrees from universities,” said Professor Mok. “There is a skill mismatch.”
The competition has made many students feel that an advanced degree is practically mandatory. Ms. Yang, who studies land resource management, said she had known for a long time that she would attend graduate school because her bachelor’s degree alone was “too inferior.”
She knew that competition for approval would increase after the outbreak. “If you choose to take the master’s exam, you can’t be afraid that there will be lots of other people,” she said.
Others accepted less. On Weibo, where the hashtag is “What do you think of the excitement for final exams?” has been viewed more than 240 million times, many feared that if enrollment skyrocketed, the quality of teaching or the value of their degree would decline.
Others have asked if the government is just postponing rising unemployment for a few years. Some feared that companies would raise their application standards. Still others wondered if there would be enough dorms to accommodate all of the students.
“Enrollment expansion is not just a matter of arithmetic,” wrote one person. “We need to think about how this will affect the general development of education and society.”
Concern reached such a high point that it sparked a government response. Hong Dayong, an Education Department official, admitted at a press conference last month that some universities were facing teacher shortages with increasing graduate programs. However, he said officials would put in place stricter quality control measures and that the government would encourage universities to offer more professionally-oriented masters degrees to help graduates find jobs.
The government has also ordered state-owned companies to hire newer graduates and subsidized companies that hire them.
Some advice was blunt. Chu Chaohui, a researcher at China’s National Institute of Education, told the state-run tabloid Global Times that graduates should lower their sight. In doing so, they would find jobs in sectors like grocery or parcel delivery, he said.
Indeed, excessive expectations can increase competition for jobs. According to Zhaopin, the recruiting website, college graduates have around 1.4 vacancies for each applicant, even after the epidemic. But many graduates only look to the largest cities or expect high salaries, said Professor Mok.
Still, some students said that encouraging the government to pursue higher education would only bolster those expectations.
“Everyone has their own ambitions, even a little arrogance,” said Bai Jingting, a business student in eastern Anhui Province. Ms. Bai, 20, said she attended her college’s job fair in the fall but couldn’t find any jobs that seemed exciting enough. “Since I applied for a graduate school, I will of course think about how it should be easier to find a job afterwards and find a job that I want.”
Another incentive for the competition is the fact that many students who wanted to study or work abroad no longer have this option.
Prior to the pandemic, Fan Ledi, a graduate of western Qinghai Province, had planned to move to Ireland for a one-year master’s degree in human resource management. After that, he wanted to work there, excited about the prospect of learning about a new culture.
But he has ditched that plan and will be looking for jobs at home when he finishes his program, which he completes online due to travel restrictions.
“The Irish are struggling to find work, let alone foreigners,” Fan said. He added that he was concerned about discrimination as anti-China sentiment rises in many western countries. “I think it is decidedly impossible to go abroad to find work now.”
He’s already attending job fairs, but won’t finish school until November. Recruiters tell him he’s early but he asks them to take his resume anyway.
Faced with the jostling for jobs and college graduate positions, Ms. Bai shrugged when the government increased the number of masters’ seats in Anhui. Her major in business was one of the most popular, she said, and competition would always be fierce.
“How Much Can Enrollment Expand?” She said. “It’s just a drop in the ocean.”
Albee Zhang and Liu Yi contributed to the research.