Students stay on at university amid depressed jobs market

While a record number of students graduated from China’s universities in recent weeks and graduation events are now winding down, some members of this year’s cohort did not take part in the celebrations. More and more final year students are opting to stay on at university by postponing graduation.

In the past yanbi, the Chinese term for postponing graduation, usually referred to failing students or those who had fallen behind due to illness or family problems staying on to repeat credits. It has now become an option for students to remain on campus rather than join the scramble for jobs in a depressed graduate jobs market at a time of rising costs.

A record 11.6 million students graduated in June and July, with youth joblessness for those aged 18-24 reaching a record 21.3% in June, up from 20.8% in May, according to official data released on 17 July.

National Bureau of Statistics Spokesperson Fu Linghui told official media this week that youth unemployment could rise further before declining after August. This is despite a raft of government measures to try to improve graduate employment outcomes.

The official Beijing Youth Daily this month reported that students at some of China’s top universities were opting to delay graduation and stay on to benefit from the relatively low cost of campus accommodation and other subsidised university facilities, as a way of reducing their costs.

Some were even deliberately ‘failing courses’, or not completing the required number of credits in order to do so, the newspaper said.

The current graduating cohort also saw severe disruptions in classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic from January 2020, and are more anxious about the future. Some are using yanbi to catch up on missed classes, according to academics.

Heightened competition means a barrage of exams

But students tell a different story. They say that with the heightened competition for China’s graduate admissions exams, civil service exams, and general recruitment which often require a barrage of company tests at the same time as preparing for final year exam and graduation theses, they preferred to stay on and stagger the pressures.

“Some company exams are quite demanding in terms of preparation,” a final year student in Shenzhen, majoring in business, told University World News, on condition of anonymity.

“We know from alumni of our university that pass rates in these tests are low and that exam content is broad and includes subject knowledge that we do not cover during our degree, so it needs preparation. This is hard to do if you have so many other exams you are preparing for during the final year," she said.

“It is not important that I graduate later than my parents were expecting. What is important is that I can prepare more carefully," she added.

“The main problem is that I will not be in graduation photos with my fellow students and friends, and that is, of course, sad as we have many shared memories. I will cherish our class photos even more.”

In particular, students point to needing more time to prepare for China’s centralised postgraduate exams. With some 4.57 million students registered for this year’s postgraduate exam compared to 3.7 million in 2021, and only one in five who took the exam accepted into postgraduate studies in 2022, competition has increased. Some experts say acceptances are likely to be below 20% of test takers this year.

A student at a prestigious university in Guangzhou, southern Guangdong province told University World News: “yanbi has really reduced the pressure. I was finding it hard to organise my time before I applied for an extension and postponed my graduation”.

She said: “I was very nervous and tired all the time. Now I have more time for my graduation dissertation and was also able to go on study visits, which broadened my perspectives.”

Other students noted that while the stigma of staying on is much reduced among the current generation, it may be harder to convince parents and older people, and perhaps employers. “If you use the extra time to do internships then employers will not penalise staying on,” the Guangzhou student said with conviction.

She added: “My parents supported my decision because I was able to get a reduction in tuition fees for this semester and I explained that there is no longer so much stigma associated with yanbi. Several students in my department have also chosen to delay graduation.”

She said she had heard on social media that some students deliberately fail their course. But she said she did not know anyone who had done that at her own university. “If you fail, it will be on your record which employers can see. I don’t think it is a good idea.”

University permission required

Additional time at university beyond the standard four years to graduate for a bachelor degree requires permission from the university authorities. However, official media has reported that universities are just as keen to keep final year students enrolled in order to improve their official graduate employment record, given that these students would not show up as unemployed.

As in previous years, education authorities have in recent months sent out repeated warnings to universities and colleges not to falsify graduate employment data, which is often exaggerated to enhance the university’s reputation. Under pressure to maintain high employment rates, some universities have reportedly pressure students to lie about job offers.

The Ministry of Education said in June that it would verify university and college graduate employment data to ensure the “authenticity and reliability” of records.

The official China Daily newspaper last week reported that some colleges have not only falsely reported graduate employment data, but they also have even forged employment agreements or contracts for students.

In notices in recent months, the ministry said institutions were not allowed to force or entice students to sign employment or labour contracts, could not withhold graduation certificates as a means to coerce students to sign employment contracts, nor could they make students sign false ‘proof of employment’ documents.

This year the Ministry of Education and provincial education departments have required more evidence of the status of students categorised as ‘self-employed’, ‘freelancing’, ‘consulting’ or ‘working overseas’.

Universities supportive

Students have reported that their professors have been supportive if they request yanbi.

Some universities even ease the way for students to stay on. For example, Peking University has a generous support system for students who postpone graduation, including halving tuition fees and keeping campus accommodation fees at the same level, as well as allowing them to go on student exchanges and attend other student events such as study visits to other universities.

Lian Kun, a final year student at East China Normal University in Shanghai majoring in education was interviewed by Beijing Youth Daily. He said he delayed graduation by a year in order to buy more time to prepare for the graduate entrance exam. Given that pedagogy is a popular subject for the exams, he said many of his classmates had chosen to postpone graduation.

“After the postponement we can continue to enjoy the various resources at the university such as the library, the study rooms, etc. It’s a good deal, no matter how you calculate it,” he was quoted as saying.

Since his university has a credit system for graduation, which means he has to graduate when he has enough credits, Lian Kun was quoted as saying he chose to deliberately fail a final year professional practice course.

Guo Yuanjie, an associate researcher at the Institute of Educational Theory at the China National Academy of Educational Sciences, was quoted in official media as saying he did not personally agree with postponement.

However, he noted: “postponing graduation is no longer considered a shameful thing. There are subjective and objective reasons for students to choose to postpone their graduation”.

He added: “we must not only actively guide students, but also treat their choices with respect and understanding, and we must not discriminate.

“Postponing graduation is definitely beneficial to the students themselves in specific situations, but we do not encourage and call on students to do so. Instead, we should help students better understand themselves and find a more suitable career development direction.”