Academic disciplines that don’t lead to jobs face the axe
China’s urban unemployment rate for young people aged 16-24 reached a record 19.9% in July, according to official statistics, despite national government subsidies and a raft of local measures to encourage companies to hire new graduates as well as increases in quotas for postgraduate study.
It has also led to changes in the way students entering higher education choose their degree subject, with more opting for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines.
This year, the number of new university graduates reached an all-time high of more than 10.75 million – 1.67 million more than the previous year.
Disciplines in which less than 60% of graduates enter employment or continue education for three consecutive years could be suspended or even revoked, according to a guideline released by the Anhui provincial government in mid-July.
Anhui University, in the provincial capital Hefei, has already culled 12 academic disciplines considered to be of “low societal need” and suspended four more believed to have “insufficiently distinctive characteristics”, according to Kuang Guangli, president of the university, quoted in official media.
Anhui officials referred to an “early warning list” of disciplines without naming them. However, a report on supply and demand of undergraduate disciplines in the province’s universities and colleges in 2021 found that law, international finance, information engineering and some others were a “bright red light” in terms of employment prospects.
The report noted the initial employment rates of “red light” disciplines included a 58.89% employment rate for law, 54% for information engineering, 50% for trade and economics, Arabic and international finance graduates, 44% for English translation and 33% for rural finance – all of them below the 60% threshold.
Borderline subjects just above the 60% employment threshold included insurance, applied statistics, taxation, arts and crafts, Korean, investment psychology, accounting, Chinese language and literature, and broadcast media.
Nonetheless, the notice also said it was necessary to “protect and develop” less in-demand subjects such as traditional Chinese medicine, tribal sciences particularly relating to the province’s Hui minority, archaeology, poetry, opera, as well as “intangible cultural heritage and other unpopular disciplines with important cultural value and heritage significance”.
Criticism of employment rate criteria
The Anhui notice has been criticised, with some academics noting that a high employment rate should not be the primary purpose of colleges and universities.
“The creation of academic disciplines should not be employment oriented as this will deliver the misleading message that students should be unnecessarily burdened by the decision over what to major in,” said one comment on Rednet.cn, a news website in Hunan province.
Other experts noted that securing 60% employment rates for any discipline during the current unemployment climate would be challenging.
“The cyclical effect on youth employment is still being felt because employers proceeded with caution during the pandemic. On the other hand, college graduates’ preference for stable jobs or decision to pursue postgraduate or even higher studies reflects their pessimistic outlook on future prospects,” said Qu Yue, a professor at the Institute for Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, writing in official media.
Already the unemployment situation has led to a dramatic decline in students opting for liberal arts and humanities degrees at Chinese universities compared to a decade ago when the top five choices countrywide were financial management, marketing, English, business management and law.
For example, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, considered a top-ranking university in China for foreign languages, had to dramatically drop its gaokao (national college entrance exam) score threshold by 27 points for entry this academic year. This is considered a huge drop for an intensely competitive institution with a good academic reputation and high popularity among employers.
The drop in the entry requirement was a trending topic on China’s social media this week, with netizens speculating that restricted travel during the pandemic and a decline in international trade has had an impact on interest in foreign language studies.
An academic based in Guangdong told University World News that in the past families considered jobs in foreign companies the most prestigious, as civil servants earned little by comparison, with state-owned companies a last resort.
Now civil service jobs are in high demand with graduates – a record-breaking two million people signed up for the national civil service exam last autumn, while more than 4.5 million people sat the postgraduate entrance exam last year, 800,000 more than the year before.
A government crackdown on out of school tutoring for those in primary and middle school also led to a huge reduction in jobs for language graduates as language tutoring, particularly in English, has always been a popular career path.
STEM overtakes humanities
The number of students enrolled in STEM courses across China has now surpassed those in the humanities, according to a report released in August by China’s search engine giant Baidu and education portal EOL (China Education Online), an indication that employment prospects have leapt to the fore in degree choice.
Countrywide, artificial intelligence topped the list of most popular majors among new undergraduates for the third consecutive year. Other popular subjects this year include big data, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, the report said.
Medicine has also been in high demand for the last two years due to increased awareness of public health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report noted.
The Ministry of Education added 31 new undergraduate majors last year, 14 of them in engineering. In 2020, 14 of 30 new majors added were also in engineering.
China Youth Daily noted in July that according to its annual survey of students’ university choices after the gaokao, in 2022 the proportion of respondents that cited future career prospects as the most important factor in their university choice surpassed those citing university reputation.
This year 57% of the 1,800 respondents said they chose according to future employment prospects compared to 52.8% citing university reputation as the main criterion. This is a major change from 2021 when 65.3% cited university reputation compared to 56.2% citing career prospects.
Alignment with national priorities
Apart from suspending or revoking 1,400 existing courses, the Anhui provincial authorities said they would add a further 1,000 academic disciplines at the undergraduate and vocational levels over the next three years that are better geared to the province’s industry and growth needs, according to the guideline.
The provincial authority has indicated that culling some subjects and adding others served to restructure higher education according to national priorities and geared it towards participation in the Yangtze River Delta region special economic area which includes Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.
Integrated development of the delta region, with a focus on technological and industrial innovation, became a national strategy in November 2018 requiring the upgrading of graduate skills.
The proportion of disciplines and majors serving the “top 10 emerging industries”, which require some two million new graduates in mainly STEM subjects, should account for more than 70% of college and university enrolment, the Anhui guidelines stated.
China’s 10 emerging industries include new-generation information technology, new energy vehicles and intelligent connected vehicles, digital creative industries, high-end equipment manufacturing, new energy and energy conservation and environmental protection, ‘green’ food industries, health, smart home appliance industries, new materials and artificial intelligence.
University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this story.