Chinese doubts over value of overseas degrees

By: Irena Barker 

Chinese students whose families have spent fortunes so they can study for degrees abroad are increasingly disappointed by their job prospects back in China, it has emerged.

The trend has led to the nickname for Chinese students returning home – ‘sea turtles’ – being changed to ‘seaweed’.

Reports that graduates returning to their homeland have been taking jobs handing out product samples or doing other menial work have prompted a debate in China about the value of degrees abroad.

Fifteen years ago only a third of Chinese graduates studying abroad returned to their native country to work, but this is now at 80 per cent, meaning there is more competition for jobs. Around 432,500 students returned to China after graduating from overseas universities in 2016, up 36.26 per cent from 2012, a recent report from the Centre for China and Globalisation found.

The survey found that returnees make only slightly more per month after graduation, on average, than China-educated graduates. Nearly 45 per cent of graduates said they thought their study abroad would be ‘irrelevant’ to their prospects of promotion. And the Chinese government’s People’s Daily newspaper recently said returning students may be ‘incompatible to domestic society’.

The issue has prompted some soul-searching in Australia where international education is the third largest export market and worth $21.8 billion a year.

The Auditor General for the state of New South Wales said the state’s universities are at risk if the number of overseas students falls, because almost a quarter of university income comes from their fees.

Monash University earned $652 million from overseas students last year, up 23 per cent from the year before. Director of the Australia China Alumni Association in Beijing, Ben Newman told the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘It is no longer as ‘gold collar’ as it used to be. Students coming back are facing a lot of problems.’

Australian National University’s (ANU) China liaison director, Amanda Barry added: ‘The whole Australian university sector needs to look at our brand in China … For Chinese students and their families, it is a big investment, and we need to be delivering on the promise.’

In one measure to support its graduates, ANU has trialled sending its Chinese students to China for work experience.