Shanghai looks to university rankings to attract top talent

Shanghai is looking to counter a major exodus of high-end talent from the city, prompted in part by its harsh lockdown measures since March, by throwing open its doors to graduates of the world’s top universities.

Shanghai’s Human Resources and Social Security Bureau this week published new measures to allow graduates from the world’s top 50 universities to settle in Shanghai with a coveted hukou or household registration, which is normally very difficult for outsiders to obtain and is used as a way to control overall population numbers in the city.

According to the bureau, graduates from universities that are among the top 50 in world university rankings published by Times Higher Education, US News & World Report, Quacquarelli Symonds or QS World University Rankings and Shanghai Ranking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities will be able to get hukou directly.

The scheme, initially lasting a year, opens for applications next month and will run until June 2023.

Graduates from universities ranked 51-100 globally can apply for hukou after they have paid social security premiums for six months, the bureau said, adding that social security payments disrupted by the pandemic can be made by the end of the year.

Typically, to obtain Shanghai residency and access to some of the best schools in the country – a major draw for young aspiring families – or buy a house in the city, graduates are assessed under a points system on their education and professional titles, employment background and property ownership, and tax payments.

But the Shanghai bureau said it will “open green channels” to handle these hukou applications to “help key enterprises employ needed talent and graduates from top universities”.

The city will also offer rental reductions or exemptions, subsidies and loans, and other preferential policies for graduates from international universities who start their own business in Shanghai, the bureau said.

The eye-catching measure echoes recent – and much criticised – measures by the United Kingdom to give immigration visas to graduates of the top 50 universities, ranked according to their performance in commercially run international rankings.

A ‘radical’ move

Shanghai has previously relaxed policies for graduates from some top Chinese universities and those with PhDs from overseas universities, enabling them to directly receive household registration under its Thousand Talents and Hundred Talents programmes to lure top scientists from overseas, but has not previously named the universities it considers “top”.

Charlotte Goodburn, deputy director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London who has researched China’s hukou policies, described the move by Shanghai as “radical”. There have been small changes to hukou policies for decades which constitute tinkering around the edges, “but what is unusual is the content of this one”, she said.

Naming the universities abroad that would qualify “goes further than has previously been done in Shanghai, where it is famously difficult to get a hukou, but I also think it is unusual in China,” she said.

She added that graduates from the top 51-100 universities globally would still have to meet the main criteria for a Shanghai hukou but noted the Shanghai authorities seem to be saying that graduates from the top 50 can come to Shanghai in order to look for a job there.

“This is really quite different from the way things have operated in Shanghai with its points system. It seems as though graduation from one of these top universities bypasses everything else, is more important than anything else, and I think the uniqueness of the COVID situation is partly what is pushing that.”

Harsh lockdown measures have led to a major exodus of talent from Shanghai, including expatriates and others educated overseas. The pandemic lockdown in Shanghai which began in March was only lifted in some districts of Shanghai in early June.

“I think the whole point of what they are doing in Shanghai is trying to expand the high-talent pool, to get businesses back on their feet because of COVID,” said Goodburn.

Rankings as a credential

Ryan Allen, who is about to take up a position as assistant professor of comparative and international education and leadership at Soka University of America, has researched China and international university rankings.

He noted that Chinese authorities had previously referred to top universities, for example within China, and added that rankings offer a “credential” for world-class university status due to the opaqueness of the term.

“But now they are providing the exact metric they are going to use to make that decision, at least with regard to returning graduates,” Allen told University World News.

Allen noted that with its intent focus on league tables, China sets the top 100 as a popular cut-off point for world-class status.

Some commentators noted that the move by the Shanghai authorities is ironic as some Chinese universities have themselves pulled out of international rankings, seeing them as not adequately reflecting their reputation and strengths. Shanghai’s own top-ranked Fudan University was ranked 60th in the latest Times Higher Education ranking.

Allen noted that, after the lockdown, the bid to attract students from top universities was “Shanghai trying to say we’re back to normal. We’re still a global city. We’re still the place where people who are part of the elite and who have a cosmopolitan outlook should come.”

But, he added, it would be interesting to see how many people under this category apply for residency.

David Zweig, emeritus professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and an expert on Chinese returnees from abroad, said top-end talent under the Thousand Talents and Hundred Talents awards to attract academics and researchers from abroad already provide such residency benefits, but the latest scheme would appeal to younger Chinese graduates from abroad who are not from Shanghai.

“It is giving them a chance to jump the queue to a hukou and giving them the opportunity to come back,” Zweig told University World News, predicting it would be popular among masters level graduates from Western universities.

“That is why they had to cap it at the top 50 universities, because if you give this kind of privilege to [graduates of] the top 100, they would get a flood,” he said.

Competition for talent

Allen also pointed to an intense rivalry for talent between Shanghai and Beijing, with Beijing far less affected by a lengthy and damaging lockdown compared to Shanghai’s lockdown which lasted over three months.

Researchers have found that Beijing and Shanghai are by far the most desirable destinations for Chinese graduates returning from overseas, with Beijing far outweighing Shanghai as a desired destination on return and other cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen far less popular.

Almost a decade ago Shenzhen lifted residency restrictions for Chinese university graduates including those returning from overseas as part of its measures to attract talent to the city, after years of only allowing graduates from some countries on a list of top universities and holding masters degrees in selected subjects.

But Goodburn noted that Shanghai and Beijing were different. “Beijing is famously slow to reform its hukou rules. I think it will be a long time before we see anything like this in Beijing.”

There has been some resentment expressed on Chinese social media towards Chinese students studying abroad and living what some in China consider to be luxurious lifestyles and then being able to short-circuit strict hukou rules to return to desirable cities such as Shanghai.

This was particularly prevalent in the past two years with many posts on the social media site Weibo suggesting that those studying abroad should not return to China and add to the straitened employment situation in cities like Shanghai.

Around 227,000 students will graduate from colleges and universities in Shanghai this year, around 20,000 more than in 2021, but jobs are hard to come by, with job fairs for students suspended since March and some colleges resorting to extending student status to graduates to allow them to stay in the city to look for jobs.

At a news conference held in early May, Shanghai Vice-Mayor Chen Qun said the employment rate for this year’s graduates was 36.47% as of 6 May, down by 6.54% year on year.

Data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics showed the jobless rate across China for young people aged 16-24 hit what it described as an “all-time high” in April at 18.2%, with experts saying this will rise as some 10.76 million university and college students graduate across China this month.