CHINA: Cutbacks in courses with poor job prospects

China's Ministry of Education is reining in uncontrolled expansion of universities by urging institutions around the country to reduce student intakes in courses with low levels of graduate employment. Courses will be 'downsized' or even cancelled if less than 60% of their graduating students in two successive years fail to find work, the ministry said.

The latest move, reported by the official China Daily, is an indication that unemployment among university graduates is still unacceptably high, although it has slightly improved since last year. In June the government said the employment rate for new graduates had risen by 2% compared to two years ago.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, the number of graduates overall is expected to reach 6.8 million in 2012 - an increase of 200,000 compared to this year, when official statistics showed that the graduate unemployment rate was as high as 25%.

Unofficial estimates put the proportion much higher - at around a third of graduates who fail to secure a job after completing their degree.

"The task to promote the employment rate of college graduates remains arduous because the total number of graduates is still very large, and some graduates' expectations for jobs do not match the demands of employers," an official statement of a State Council meeting, presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao, said in May.

Popular subjects

According to a survey conducted last year by Beijing University, the country's most popular degree subjects include information technology (IT), electronics, languages (particularly English), law, mechanics, architecture, accounting and finance, journalism, medicine, environment and business management.

Graduate employment rates "vary widely between disciplines and colleges; most significantly, engineering and accountancy had the highest rate of almost full employment whereas law, foreign languages and business administration, all formerly hot subjects, ended up with relatively low rates of employment," reported a recent briefing paper published by the National University of Singapore's East Asia Institute.

The ministry has not said which subjects may be targeted for cuts, but law graduates were among the most likely to have difficulties finding jobs, according to academics who did not want to be named. Students specialising in English, IT, business management and the Chinese language also have particularly poor employment prospects at present.

But Han Zijing, a Chinese language professor at Chongqing Normal University, said: "It is hard to define what a good major is."

For example, biological engineering used to be popular, drawing talented students, but its market demand has remained small. "The country still needs talents in this field with a long-term view, although many graduates were not able to find a decent job in the last two or three years," he was quoted by China Daily as saying.

"The ministry should figure out special measures to sustain programmes in subjects that may not lead to a high rate of employment but are indispensable to the process of human cultivation, such as theoretical physics and history research," said Chen Xi, a doctoral student at the Institute of Semiconductor Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

He also questioned how the employability of a particular subject is determined. "What is the definition of a high employment rate? Some students got jobs unrelated to their majors. Do they count in this pool as well?"

Herd-like mentality

Academics described a "herd-like mentality" in recent years leading to a rush into studying particular subjects, rather than what students are good at or enjoy.

"This has led to a large number of similarly qualified students competing for the same job vacancies," said an academic at a university in southern China.

However the academic, an economist who declined to be named, believed it was unlikely that popular subjects would be culled by universities, particularly as they attract students willing to pay tuition fees.

"They [the authorities] may reduce the numbers as part of an overall strategy to reduce student numbers, but it is unlikely that popular subjects will be cut," the academic said.

According to official statistics, humanities and social science majors now account for a quarter of all graduates compared to one in five in 2000, while engineering graduates have remained the same at 36% of graduates. Meanwhile, the country is producing five times as many science graduates compared to 2000, with more than 250,000 science majors graduating each year.

According to a survey by China's Bingo Job of one million new graduates, generalist jobs in marketing, sales and logistics absorbed more than 40% of newly-minted college graduates entering the labour market. For generalist jobs, most employers only required a diploma or even high school education, rather than a university degree, the jobs portal said.

Structural mismatch

But economists point to much deeper structural problems, particularly the significant size of China's manufacturing sector compared to its service sector - the main employment area for graduates.

According to education and labour market expert Mao Shu-chao, a former vice-president of the Shanghai Education Research Institute, the 2.5 million white-collar jobs generated by the Chinese economy each year is not enough to absorb the 6.3 million graduates produced by the countries' universities annually.

He has said skilled migrant workers without degrees, in comparison to graduates, have almost 97% employment, and has been advocating for a greater focus on vocational education rather than university degrees, particularly for students outside the biggest towns.

Parents working in factories have been keen for their children to go to university rather than follow their footsteps into blue-collar jobs, but this may have exacerbated the mismatch between jobs and qualifications.

In the longer term, according to the State Council, China's plans to develop more knowledge and technology-intensive enterprises should help create more job opportunities for graduates. It said in the May statement: "More jobs should be created in the fields of social management, public education, health and the cultural sectors."

Related links
CHINA: Guidelines to ease graduate unemployment
CHINA: Making graduates employable