China ‘must sweeten deal’ to draw graduates beyond biggest cities

Few of those returning from studying overseas look beyond Beijing and Shanghai, according to survey

五月 27, 2022
Chinese sweet
Source: iStock

Chinese doctoral students graduating from overseas institutions are increasingly choosing to return home to build their careers – but for China, the benefits are not evenly spread, researchers found.

Just a small percentage of the students coming back from institutions abroad wanted to work outside the country’s two main cultural and political centres, according to recent findings published in the book Higher Education, Innovation and Entrepreneurship from Comparative Perspectives.

A survey of more than 2,600 “high-level talents” – mostly doctoral students and graduates studying abroad – showed that nearly 69 per cent of them wanted to return to China to work, compared with 31 per cent who preferred to work overseas.

While that is a welcome finding for a country looking to retain its home-grown talent, the bigger picture belies an uneven distribution of talent nationally, said researchers led by Ka Ho Mok, a professor of higher education at Lingnan University.

To change the trend, policymakers will need to take measures to entice young talent further afield, he and his co-authors argue.

“The Chinese government can take a more proactive approach in offering favourable policies to attract the Chinese international talents returning home to work across regions,” they write.

According to the findings, Beijing and Shanghai were the most desirable destinations by far for returning talent. Roughly 42 per cent of the survey respondents wanted to live in China’s capital, while nearly 36 per cent preferred its largest city.

But other top destinations trailed these cities by some distance. Only 5.3 per cent of graduates would have wanted to work in Tianjin, the third most popular destination.

Perhaps more worryingly for the Chinese government, the skilled returnees surveyed registered tepid interest in Guangdong province, where China’s Greater Bay Area is located. Despite the government’s plan to develop the GBA into an economic and business hub, few students listed Guangdong as a top choice.

The province – which includes nine large cities and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, academic destinations in their own right – came fourth, albeit with only 3.5 per cent of students saying they would prefer to work there.

Respondents listed the level of economic development as the key factor behind their choice, with the majority of them citing this as their top motivator. Other draws included the local talent policy, the cost of living and house prices.

Speaking at a conference hosted by the Centre for Global Higher Education, Professor Mok said China was correct to introduce more incentives for graduates to consider cities beyond its two biggest conurbations.

“I don’t think the Chinese government can force those talents to go to different parts [of the country], but the government can create a more conducive and attractive environment” for them, he said.

The government is already encouraging institutions in Hong Kong and Macao to work with universities in the GBA, building a “cluster of very strong universities” bound by collaborations, he said. In one example, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is building a branch campus in nearby Guangzhou.

Driven by investment, China’s higher education system has “improved significantly” in recent decades, said Professor Mok, noting that offers for researchers were competitive, with those at the top of their fields receiving offers to set up laboratories at Chinese institutions even as resources in many Western institutions were spread thinly owing to financial pressures.

Professor Mok said it was difficult to predict how graduate flows had changed since he and colleagues conducted their survey in 2019, but he argued that the government strategy should remain laser-focused on providing top-notch working conditions for academics.

“I don’t have crystal ball in front of me,” he said, but regardless of mobility trends, “the government can create the opportunity…for those new talents to choose”.



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