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What can we learn from returning Chinese students?

While higher education continues along an outward-looking, globally connected trajectory, recent democratic elections in the United Kingdom and United States may suggest that the voting public is becoming increasingly sceptical about the growing tide of internationalisation in higher education.

They may see that only those families with sufficient resources can send their children abroad to enhance their global competitiveness; and they may have growing concerns too about the value of international learning.

In light of this, some are asking whether internationalisation of higher education has become part of an elite agenda that has failed to address the concerns and needs of local communities and society.

It is against this particular background that support for open borders, multilateral trade and cooperation is weakening while ideas of academic nationalism, protectionism and even isolationism are becoming popular. So what is the experience of Chinese students returning from study abroad?

Employment opportunities for returnees

With the steady economic growth of mainland China offering a wide range of opportunities for career development, there has been a growing number of Chinese students returning to seek work. A recent study of Chinese returnees conducted by New Oriental, a private education institution in China, shows a relatively large proportion have returned from the UK (21%), the US (17%) and Australia (10%).

Embarking on careers in China, the majority of returnees work in private firms (36.1%) or companies that benefit from foreign investment (26.7%). Around 14% serve in state-owned enterprises, 8.9% work in public administration and 2.7% have worked in start-ups.

Around 30% work in the marketing and sales sector, around 11% in administration, 10.1% in financial management, 12.9% in research and development, 8.3% in human resource management and 11.8% in production and logistics.

Given that the coastal areas of mainland China are becoming increasingly prosperous, not only in terms of international trade and the economy but also with regard to global social and cultural exchange, the majority of Chinese returnees head for major cities like Beijing (26.7%), Shanghai (13.2%) and Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the southern part of the country (10.5%).

Not surprisingly, the majority of them would prefer to work in the most economically open cities in Eastern China.

It is no surprise that finance constitutes the number one industry employing returnees (14.3%), with trade/business/retail second (7.2%), followed by property/architecture (6.9%) and internet-related jobs (5.5%).

Do the returnees have better employment opportunities compared to their local counterparts? It is clear from the study that they experience relatively favourable employment opportunities.

Although the Chinese returnees have found the labour market increasingly competitive as a steady stream of international students have returned and a growing number of students have obtained overseas university qualifications and learning experiences, a more recent study conducted in 2016 reported that around 40% secured their jobs within a month, 37% found a job within three months, around 14% spent between three and six months securing their jobs, while the rest (9%) spent around a year or more trying to find a job.

Do the returnees enjoy better remuneration after coming back to China to work? According to another study conducted by New Oriental in 2015, the average income by number of years in a job is as follows: one year: RMB83,000 (US$12,200); two years: RMB130,000 (US$19,000); and three years: RMB327,000 (US$50,000).

It is estimated the expected return on investment or ROI after studying abroad is 49% for those who spend five years or more abroad, compared to 18% for those who spend three years abroad. There is clearly a more favourable employment rate for returnees when compared to local graduates.

Return on investment

If we take the above findings together, it is obvious that Chinese returnees have increased their employment opportunities as a result of studying abroad, but that competition among returnees is becoming more intense. This also explains why returnees are more positive when asked to evaluate their overseas learning experiences and career development.

When asked to comment on the costs and benefits of having overseas learning experiences, the majority of respondents (over 65%) believe they can get a return on investment within five years of studying abroad, while 7.2% believe they can get that ROI within a year. Some respondents were less optimistic with around 24.1% believing it might take five to 10 years to get an ROI and 10.3% considering it might take over 10 years.

Nonetheless, the majority of Chinese returnees generally believe studying overseas brings advantages and think such learning experiences should not be assessed purely with reference to their economic benefits but should also take into account factors such as cultural enrichment and personal growth.

Addressing inequality

Our research reviews the increasingly popular trend for Chinese students to study abroad but also to enrol on transnational higher education programmes offered by Sino-foreign cooperation universities in mainland China.

The majority of respondents rate their experiences highly not just for the hard knowledge and skills they provide but also for the soft skills and cross-cultural understanding they offer.

Most consider their international learning experiences will have a positive impact on their future upward social mobility, something that is supported by their perceived job prospects, their salary level and job type and also the relatively short period they spend securing their first job on return.

Unsurprisingly, the majority consider overseas studies and transnational higher education in a positive light.

Taking this into account, we need to realise that students and families who cannot afford to pay for study abroad or enrolment on transnational higher education programmes will encounter far more difficulty finding jobs after graduating. There are therefore growing concerns about whether international learning is intensifying education inequality.

Such perceptions have inevitably led to the trend towards anti-globalism and anti-internationalisation of higher education. These are concerns governments and universities need to address carefully. They also need to make more concerted efforts to share with local people how international learning has benefitted the economy and wider society.

Universities should also strengthen and embed internationalisation ‘at home’ and ‘on campus’, building authentic links between institutions and their many publics.

Most importantly of all, they need to uphold the value of internationalism in education in the face of growing fear and suspicion and attacks on pluralism.

Meanwhile, governments should deploy the resources necessary to help students from less economically advantageous backgrounds to engage in different forms of international learning to enhance their competitiveness in the labour market instead of concentrating funding on the top universities aimed to improve their place in the global university rankings.

Ka Ho Mok is Lam Man Tsan Chair Professor of Comparative Policy at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.
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