The plight of a Chinese student whose parents sold their home to pay for an Australian university education but only found a job handing out product samples has sparked debate in China questioning the value of overseas education.
The worsening job prospects for graduates returning to China could send a chill through Australia’s third largest export market – international education – which is worth $21.8 billion annually, Australian trade officials have told Fairfax Media.
The trend is so marked that the once affectionate moniker for Chinese students returning home, “sea turtles”, has changed to “seaweed”.
“Lin” was under huge pressure to succeed at Monash University after her parents sold their home for 1.2 million Chinese yuan ($A230,000) to afford the university fees, a Hangzhou newspaper reported.
Australian university graduate Jacky Wan, now working at Beijing outdoor company Summit Experience Photo: Sanghee Liu
She changed universities after failing a subject, and spent two million yuan over six years studying finance in Australia before returning this year. Back in China she struggled to find a low-level job paying just 5000 yuan a month.
Amid a wave of stories about disillusioned Chinese students returning from overseas, and social media debate, the official People’s Dailypublished an editorial saying returnees may be “incompatible to domestic society”. The risk of studying abroad was getting bigger because it did not guarantee a good job, the editorial said.
A survey of 150,000 Chinese overseas students found on average that they make only 500 Chinese yuan ($100) more per month than Chinese university graduates.
One Chinese social media user, commenting on Lin’s story, wrote that his friend had spent 2 million yuan studying in Australia since high school, but the family would have made a better investment buying two apartments because the rentals would exceed his salary.
The NSW Auditor General has identified a financial risk to NSW universities if overseas student intakes fall, because almost a quarter of university revenue comes from international student fees. Monash University, where Lin studied, earned $652 million from overseas student fees last year, up 23 per cent from the previous year.
But in China, failure stories are resonating because there are many more examples out there, says Director of the Australia China Alumni Association in Beijing, Ben Newman.
Jacky Wan Photo: Sanghee Liu
“It is no longer as ‘gold collar’ as it used to be. Students coming back are facing a lot of problems,” he says.
Often the choice to send a student overseas is made by a parent, based on the experience of international education 15 years ago, before the huge increase in the number of Chinese students studying abroad.
Then, only one third of graduates returned to China to work, now many more – about 80 per cent – are returning home, meaning more competition for jobs.
But in many cases, Chinese companies have already filled positions with local graduates.
“The foreign degree isn’t the edge it used to be,” says Australian National University’s China liaison director, Amanda Barry.
“The big employers in China go around job fairs of the top Chinese universities and can fill their graduate intake – they don’t need foreign graduates.”
“The whole Australian university sector needs to look at our brand in China … For Chinese students and their families, it is a big investment, and we need to be delivering on the promise.”
ANU has trialled sending its Chinese students to China for work experience.
Jacky Wan, 27, graduated with an accounting degree from the University of NSW in 2013. He now works as an outdoor sport instructor in Beijing. “My job has no relation to my major,” he says.
His girlfriend, who graduated from Macquarie University last year, is still looking for work in China. Like other friends, she is trying to start her own business to overcome the difficulty securing a job.
“When I came back to China, I took many courses – first aid, outdoor education, environment protection, rock-climbing, mountaineering,” Wan says.
“I got a lot of certificates in China.”
The nationally-certified courses were recognised by Chinese employers, and he got a “very cool” job working for the former coach of China’s national mountaineering team.
Although he hasn’t used his Australian accounting qualification, Wan credits his love of outdoor sport to Australia, where he began hiking.
Austrade’s education commissioner in Shanghai, Rhett Miller, says research shows foreign graduates are disadvantaged in the job application process and dissatisfied with the jobs they find in China.
Mr Miller said Australian universities have started to recognise the problem, but need to do more to helpChinese graduates returning home.
“International education is our third-largest export and many universities are heavily reliant on international fees to fund their research,” he said.
Austrade will hold an annual jobs fair in China for Australian graduates to “demonstrate to the market that we are attempting to address this”.
Mr Newman says studying overseas for four years risks losing valuable networks, and coming back with “old fashioned” knowledge as China changes so quickly.
Returnees from the US and Britain face the same problem, but he is concerned recent incidents on Australian university campuses with racist graffiti have not helped.
“It goes onto social media and trickles back to students looking at studying in Australia; and students who have studied in Australia and have had things turn a bit sour.”
Ms Barry says Australia is ranked third in attracting Chinese students, “but Canada is nipping at our heels and continental Europe is cheaper. We ignore this at our peril.”
UNSW’s international pro vice chancellor, Laurie Pearcey, said: “We are acutely aware that international students from China or elsewhere are very much focused on employment outcomes.”
UNSW is trying to side-step the job difficulties faced by returning graduates by providing mentoring for start-ups in China. “Don’t find a job, create one,” he said.
Nikki Zhao, 27, graduated from the University of Melbourne with a masters in management and will start with international bank HSBC in Guangzhou next month, but says many of her fellow graduates are finding it tough to get jobs in accounting.
“Chinese companies might prefer to look for someone who graduated within China,” she said.
Ms Zhao did a bachelor degree in the US before coming to Australia, and says studying overseas is “not just to gain knowledge, but understanding culture”.
By Kirsty Needham
Sydney Morning Herald