Concern over too many postgraduates as fewer find jobs

Education Ministry officials have expressed concern over the large number of postgraduates in China, as students with masters and PhD degrees are finding it even harder than graduates with lower degrees to find employment in a sluggish jobs market.

Registration for national postgraduate examinations closes at the end of the October, with exams held in early January, and the number applying to sit the exams could reach record levels.

According to one blogger in Jinan, capital of Shandong province in eastern China, writing in July this year, cram schools that prepare students for the postgraduate exams have been overwhelmed by demand, and this year had to open a class in a large gymnasium because of the number of students. The gymnasium’s capacity was put at some 3,500.

But ministry statistics show that the employment rate of students leaving universities with postgraduate degrees has been lower than that of undergraduates for three consecutive years since 2009, although postgraduate employment rates have been dropping since 2005.

Even in China’s fast-growing southern Guangdong province, the employment rate of postgraduates has recently been lower than for graduates – even though a survey in 2004 in Guangdong showed that postgraduate employment rates were 20% higher than for graduates.

According to one Guangdong academic, who spoke on condition that he is not named, the high expectations of postgraduates in terms of salaries and type of jobs is part of the problem. They typically prefer secure positions in state-owned companies and government departments, he said.

“Postgraduates do not have much of an edge on their peers who have not pursued a higher degree,” the official China Daily newspaper said last month, referring to a countrywide trend.

Number of postgraduate students has soared

The number of postgraduate students has risen to 517,000 enrolled in universities this year, compared to 220,000 in 2003 – doubling in less than a decade.

A just-released study by Wuhan University in Hubei province found that at the country’s top 10 institutions, including the elite Tsinghua and Peking universities, the numbers graduating from postgraduate courses in 2011 outnumbered those graduating from undergraduate programmes in the same institutions.

The country’s top institution, Peking University, graduated 2,500 more students with postgraduate qualifications last year compared to those leaving with graduate degrees.

Many universities have expanded postgraduate provision in recent years, in part to increase revenues from fees, but also to reduce the number of graduates going directly into a job market that has seen high unemployment rates for new graduates.

“Some institutions urge their undergrads to take postgraduate studies because postgraduate admissions are counted in the employment rate of their undergraduates,” Li Kongzhen, associate professor of Capital Normal University, was quoted in the official Global Times newspaper as saying.

Official figures put graduate unemployment at 22% last year, although many believe underemployment is far higher.

But universities also have more autonomy to expand and set up courses. Compared to the previous system where the Education Ministry was responsible for setting up new courses and disciplines, this new freedom has meant a mismatch between postgraduate course expansion and employment market needs.

Concern about quality

Although only one in three applicants succeeds in obtaining a postgraduate place, the rise in postgraduate numbers is also causing concern about quality.

The study produced by Wuhan University’s Research Centre for Chinese Science Evaluation found that one in six professors was supervising more than 10 postgraduate students each at some 30 universities, and one in 10 was supervising more than 20 students each.

Qiu Junping, director of the research centre, said the appropriate lecturer to student ratio at postgraduate level was one for every three students, with a maximum of six students, otherwise quality could suffer.

Some universities were hoping to improve their research capability “but this does not depend on the number of postgraduates”, Qiu said, referring to the pressure on universities to improve their national and international rankings, which is based to a large extent on research performance.

“Education authorities should focus on job market requirements and improving the quality of postgraduate education instead of expanding enrolment,” he said.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, said the rise in the number of postgraduate students was not compatible with the needs of the jobs market.

“In the past few years, universities mainly offered courses for academic master degrees, but there aren't many research jobs out there in the market," he said.

The outlook for next year may be worse as China’s economic growth began to slow in the first half of this year.

Economists suggest that enough postgraduate level jobs can only be created in the medium term if the country moves swiftly from a manufacturing economy to an innovation and service economy.