How to boost the employability outcomes of Chinese students?

China has always been the top-sending country of international students to Australia. By 2021, the number of Chinese students studying in Australia was some 166,319.

Achieving good employability outcomes is one of the main reasons driving Chinese students to study abroad. However, the actual employability outcomes of Chinese students have always been lower than their expectations.

For instance, a 2019 report showed that the unemployment rate for international students in Australia was much higher (10.6%) than the national average (5.7%), and that a large number worked in low-skilled occupations (17%).

Australia has faced a crisis in attracting international students since the pandemic. Enhancing the employability of international students, including Chinese students, is one of the practical solutions that could make Australia competitive in the international education market.

Australia has a well-established international education industry but, surprisingly, there is currently a dearth of knowledge about the employment experiences of international students. Therefore, it is important to gain insights into what contributes to Chinese graduates’ low employability outcomes.

What determines employability outcomes?

When discussing the employability of international graduates, one of the main factors that has been reported on as a key determinant is permanent residency. Rich evidence has been found that employers in Australia prefer to employ someone with permanent residency so that they can avoid complicated administrative work.

Unfortunately, the Australian government has tightened its migration policy by launching a stricter selection of overseas talent. In the 2019-20 budget, the former government of Scott Morrison decreased the number of permanent residency visas by 120,000.

The processing time for some new visas – for example, temporary parent visas – has also become longer. Moreover, the requirements for visa eligibility have become more demanding.

Subclass 190 is a clear example illustrating how complicated the procedures are. It requires that only those who belong to particular age groups and have high language proficiency, career experience and educational qualifications are likely to obtain high points.

The mandatory English test has also become much more demanding. For example, applicants can only obtain 10 points on a points-based visa application if they get an overall Band 7 (meaning they get at least a seven for each of the four test components) in the International English Language Testing System.

Another critical factor that has frustrated international students greatly is the constantly changing nature of visa schemes, which means many international students end up investing lots of time in preparing permanent residency applications and neglecting their studies.

Cultural differences

When it comes to Chinese graduates, unsatisfactory employability outcomes are also the result of a culture of depending on and following parents’ decisions. It is very common that Chinese parents prefer to ‘take care’ of their offspring’s careers. When the younger generations seek a job, their parents tend to impose their idea about what the ‘ideal jobs’ are – often well-paid and stable ones.

This practice is deeply influenced by Confucianism, an ancient Chinese belief system that advocates ‘filial piety’. This phrase literally means reverence and respect for parents. Some Chinese parents consider that it involves absolute obedience, so they think they are in charge of their children’s career pathways. They believe they have the authority to decide their children’s future because of their richer personal experience and financial provision.

However, such a heavy reliance on parents has consequences. For instance, many Chinese students may miss out on good job opportunities, especially the jobs they are interested in.

For example, quite a few are willing to return to China on graduation and do not make any effort to look for a job in Australia. Although it is not easy to obtain employment in the host country, many miss out on an opportunity to work in a field where they could fulfil their potential.

So although the parents may have good intentions, what they have done is counterproductive and has a negative impact on children’s employability.

Misunderstandings and miscommunication

Finally, the unsatisfactory employability outcomes of Chinese students are also influenced by the Chinese graduates themselves. One of the problems is their English language ability.

Studies have shown that English ability is one of the most significant limitations for international students, including Chinese graduates. After studying in an English-speaking country for years, some still struggle to communicate fluently.

Another important issue is that many Chinese students do not know how to build effective social networks for career development in Australia.

From their perspective, social relationships mean Guanxi, a Chinese compound composed of two single characters – namely, Guan and Xi. The former means a ‘door lock’ or a ‘gateway’, while the latter means ‘linkage’ or a ‘system of links’. With the two characters combined, Guanxi refers to “a system of links when one party chooses to ‘open the link’ to the other party”.

It has two layers of meaning. First, in terms of interpersonal relationships, it means a utilitarian propensity to help others without having a genuine emotional exchange. Second, it means not letting others ‘lose face’ by avoiding direct remarks or returning a favour for a favour.

By contrast, in Australia, the notion of interpersonal relationships differs. Australians think relationships mean genuinely establishing networks so that informal and formal support can be available whenever needed.

Unfortunately, Chinese students mistake making connections for Guanxi. Their misinterpretation of interpersonal relationships leads to unexpected cultural conflicts in Australian workplaces. In many cases, they struggle to work collaboratively with their Australian colleagues.

Chinese students do not work as collaboratively when they realise that the possibility of them benefiting from others is slight. Australian people may feel dissatisfied because they value collaboration.

Moreover, Chinese students do not like to make others ‘lose face’ so they do not often provide direct feedback or share personal ideas. Australians may then feel unclear about what is going on.

In summary, these different norms can cause issues in communication between Chinese and Australians in the workplace.

How to improve Chinese graduates’ employability?

Institutions think that knowledge, skills and certain attributes are the key factors contributing to students’ employment success. However, to achieve career success, students need a wider range of resources including, but not limited to, effective social networks and a good understanding of the local working culture.

Creating real life practices like internships are an effective way to enable students to overcome their limitations in these areas. Moreover, it is clear that Chinese students should take a more active role in managing their careers, such as having clear career goals and looking for opportunities to build their employability resources beyond official university curricula.

Minjie Tang is a PhD student in the school of education, culture and society, higher education group, in the faculty of education at Monash University in Australia.