Postgraduate education booms in China

Crowded job market is only one reason for surge in applicants

January 13, 2021
Source: iStock

An unprecedented number of Chinese students are preparing to apply for postgraduate courses in the 2021-22 academic year. While Covid’s negative effect on the job market is one immediate factor pushing young people into higher-level study, experts said that a longer-term government effort to boost master’s education was the main reason for the surge.

The national postgraduate enrolment exam, held at the end of December, registered 3.77 million test-takers, a 10 per cent increase from the 3.41 million the previous year, according to the Ministry of Education. Numbers have been rising since 2017, when there were just over 2 million such test-takers.

Last February, before it was known that Covid would wreak such havoc on the economy, the government had already planned for an additional 189,000 postgraduate spots. It is likely that the number is even higher now, as individual universities report expansions in postgraduate spaces.

Chengdu University in Sichuan province has forecast a 71 per cent jump in postgraduate enrolments this year. The Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing said that its number of postgraduate applicants rose above 10,000 for the first time.

Part of the reason is that competition for top jobs has grown, prompting the announcement of a national action plan on youth employment in December. 

China’s urban unemployment rate hit a record high in 2020, just as 8.74 million new graduates were flooding the market. Those who did not find a job last year will have to vie with an additional 9.09 million new graduates in 2021, which will be the country’s largest ever cohort of new bachelor’s degree holders, according to the Ministry of Education.

Domestic graduates are also competing with Chinese graduates returning from overseas. The number of “returnee” students applying to have their foreign credentials validated in China rose from 270,000 to 300,000 in the past year, as they fled from political tensions in the US and Covid fears across the West.

Li Fengliang, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, told Times Higher Education that there were many reasons for the expansion of postgraduate study.

“I don’t think Covid is the main reason for the expansion of graduate education,” he said. “Graduate school is a natural choice for many students because of the rate of return, in other words, the increase in income after acquiring a graduate degree.”

Unlike US or UK universities, which may rely on rising postgraduate numbers for revenue, Chinese institutions generally do not earn income by recruiting more postgraduate students. 

The impetus, instead, seems to be nation-building. “Our research has found that postgraduate education can promote economic growth,” Professor Li said. “Therefore, the government has increased the scale of graduate education for this reason.

“As China grows stronger and the quality of its education improves, it is believed that China’s graduate education will attract students from all over the world. Even if they are asked to pay, they will be willing to come to China for graduate studies, just like the US and UK.”

In September, China set 2035 as a goal to become a leading country for postgraduate education. However, there are concerns that a sudden expansion of postgraduate spaces may not be matched by rising quality.

Zhang Ruomei, a research assistant at the Institute of Public Policy at the South China University of Technologywrote in August that “concerns about quality are particularly marked” regarding “professional masters”, which were introduced in 1991 as pragmatic, taught postgraduate courses.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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