China: The paradox of foreign education

  • 2 August 2012
  • From the section Business
Chinese students in Los Angeles
Many thousands of Chinese teenagers go abroad to study, many to the US

There was a time when Chinese students who obtained higher education abroad were considered to be the most fortunate of their generation.

After graduating from elite universities in the US and Britain, they were virtually guaranteed the best career prospects upon their return.

Those students were colloquially referred to as sea turtles - returning home with the world on their backs.

But things are different now.

These very students are now referred to as seaweed - washed up on the shore, with little or no prospect of finding work once they return home.

Shift in priorities

So why are foreign education qualifications not valued as highly as they once were?

"The reason employers valued them in the past has probably changed," says the regional director of the specialist recruitment company Hays.

According to Simon Lance, the main turning point centres around speaking another language.

"Previously, studying abroad brought with it some very strong language skills," he says.

But Chinese universities have come a long way in the past decade in the teaching of languages, and the skills obtained abroad are therefore less crucial.

Some people question whether it now makes sense to seek education abroad.

"If the expectation is that the qualification itself will automatically guarantee a high-paying job, then the answer is no," says Mr Lance.

"But as part of a long-term career plan with a multinational company then it is a very good starting point," he says.

However, Mr Lance also suggests any graduate studying abroad should seek work experience overseas as well.

"That would give them a much better competitive advantage when they return to China as opposed to just having the qualification itself," he says.

Debt burden

Ivy Wang went to Loughborough University for a masters degree in media and cultural analysis.

"I wanted to see what was going on outside of China, to see more and learn about other cultures," she says. "And I also wanted to improve my English."

Chinese person eating on side of road
Analysts expect China's unemployment rates to rise as economic growth slows

It cost her family about £30,000 ($47,000) to send her to the UK to finish her education.

When she returned to China, she sent out her CV, and managed to get 20 job interviews, mainly with travel companies and educational institutions.

There are jobs everywhere in China, she says, but the wages are "not satisfying".

She was offered a salary of between $500 and $1,000 per month and half of that would be spent on renting a single room.

"Chinese employers know exactly who they want - someone who will do as they are told but not for much money," Ms Wang says.

"I work for a Swiss company now.

"Working for a foreign company means I can explain what I have done and what I have achieved, whereas with a Chinese company I have to be really quiet.

"China wants to broaden its strategy and have people who speak English or have a foreign education background, but at the same time they really want to control those people easily," she says.

It will take Ms Wang a decade to pay back her debts, but she says her family wants her to have a happy life rather than a stressful one.

Changing structure

It has been suggested that employers might regard people educated abroad as having a feisty attitude - that they would not be the pliant employee they were seeking.

But Mr Lance at the Hays recruitment agency says the opposite would be true in some circumstances.

"It would suit the management style and culture of a multinational company very well," he says.

"Having independent thought or being a little bit feisty is probably quite valued by a lot of multinational employers."

But Mr Lance adds that local qualifications when applying for positions with local companies could well be more of an advantage.

China is adapting from the stack-them-high and sell-them-cheap culture into something more innovative and consumer driven.

Chinese students graduating
Graduates leave Chinese universities better equipped now than they did a decade previously

"There is definitely a state of flux at the moment. The culture shift within employers and employees is quite difficult at the moment," Mr Lance says.

"A lot of companies realise they need candidates with international skills and international experience, but they have not yet adapted their culture to attract or retain those types of people," he says.

Some companies are managing the cultural adaptation better than others.

"There is a shift from a very hierarchical structure towards a more flexible Western structure, where the salary you are paid and the promotions you achieve and the progression you might expect in your career is driven more by ability or merit rather than the years served," Mr Lance says.

"In the banking and finance sectors there are many examples of Chinese owned and operated banks actively seeking out senior and mid-level managerial staff that have a Western approach.

"That is driven by banks which are starting to expand out of China and looking at international markets."

Seaweed gathering on the shores might not deter other students from studying abroad, although with Chinese universities rising to the challenge of doing business in the 21st Century, they might face less pressure to become turtles.

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