Chinese student mobility, return migration, and the transition into the labour market

Saskia Jensen


The internationalisation of higher education (HE) has increased dramatically over the last two decades and has largely become a market driven activity. There has been a major influx of Chinese students to British universities since the late 1990s, making Chinese students the primary engine for growth for international HE. This development raises the question about the main drivers for Chinese students to pursue tertiary education in the UK and the perceived benefits of an international education in the longer term.

International higher education (IHE) is an intangible and often expensive service that leads to complex and increasingly selective decision-making processes, which are largely influenced by information available, opinions of influencers, and reputational factors as well as structural factors, such as visa policies and costs. Choosing to be an internationally mobile student is a decision made on an individual level and, generally, the most important elements in the decision-making process relate to the course and the reputation of the education. Options for students to work, career prospects, and employability are, in general, other crucial factors that influence the decision making, and a 2017 study among internationally mobile students confirmed that 76% of respondents considered career-related aspects influential factors when choosing a suitable study destination.1

But does an international education really provide graduates with a competitive advantage in a highly competitive, increasingly global, and ever changing labour market? Literature on employability is usually focused on the national level, and the link between mobility and employability has been little researched. There are few studies available that look into international students’ progress and their labour market transition (Huang, 2013).

This chapter elaborates on the link between international tertiary education, its perceived impact on future employability, and the role higher education institutions (HEIs) play in providing students with an extended set of skills. Focusing on Chinese students’ motivations to study abroad, their expectations, and their study-to-work transition, this chapter investigates the role of higher education, the importance of future employability, student mobility, and graduate outcomes.

Drawing on the literature, the author argues that, despite a general understanding of the positive impact an international education has on the individual, a Western degree does not necessarily result in a successful study-to-work transition and does not guarantee a desirable job upon graduation. However, the increasing importance of an international perspective has become more apparent in China, and an internationally educated workforce is expected to make positive contributions in the changing context of China’s position in a global market and it is increasingly in demand.

Employability and the role of higher education

The thought that the skill set of workers is a form of capital is one of the most important ideas in economic theory, and since the link between education and productivity was established in the human capital theory, this notion has become even more significant in the 21st century as human capital forms a key resource for competitiveness and development (Wang, 2012). Consequently, education at all levels is recognised as a contributor to a country’s economic performance.

In information societies, knowledge is a key resource and both a formal and non-formal education are a necessity for economic and social development. The International Commission on Education for the 21st century stressed the fact that societies have to confront and overcome tensions between the global and the local, the universal and the individual, and modernity and tradition in order to foster the expansion of knowledge and facilitate progress (Delors, 1996).

The significance of the UK tertiary education sector to the wider economy is generally acknowledged and has been made more explicit in recent years. In his 1997 report, Dearing stressed the need for a globally competitive economy with highly skilled, trained, and motivated graduates who perform successfully on the world’s stage. This, coupled with the further development of the human capital theory, has created a fertile forum for the discourse of employability. Consequently, the relationship between the economy and higher education has been a longstanding topic of debate, and graduate employability has become an aim that has been imposed on HE systems.

The Enhancing Student Employability Coordination Team (ESECT) delivered a widely accepted definition2 based on their research with key stakeholders; it defines employability as “a set of achievements, understandings and personal attributes that make individuals more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations” (Maher & Graves, 2008). Employability implies a relationship between education and employment in which education orients learners and workers towards employment. In order to understand this relationship, it is crucial to understand the broader changing context of societies that identify educational needs for the workforce. Dramatic changes caused by demographic trends and migration, new technologies, and shifts in the labour market have had profound implications for the workplace and, therefore, for the education that prepares people for it. Today, the education sector faces challenges that derive from ever changing demands of the (global) labour market, and this means undertaking multiple tasks to prepare learners for further and continuous education, employment, and career changes. This development creates the need for a more flexible and balanced education system, which combines both formal and non-formal education to enable lifelong learning and to promote employability (Wang, 2012). In 2006, the UK government published the Leitch Review - a paper that considers the UK’s long-term skill needs and emphasises the potential of people as being the country’s natural resource. The paper stresses the need to maximise skills in order to maximise the economic and social health of the UK. At a European level, the Bologna Process seeks to “create a European space for higher education in order to enhance the employability and mobility of citizens,” and with the ideas of Bologna spreading well beyond European boundaries, the link between education and employability is now stronger and more “global” than ever.

Educational institutions are challenged with teaching discipline-specific curricula as well as supporting soft skills development, such as communication, creativity, leadership, teamwork, values, and ethics. Education itself is no longer the ultimate goal for learners. It imparts relevant skills that allow a smooth educa- tion-to-work transition. National and international competitiveness is another challenge faced by institutions in the 21st century: employability rankings, graduate outcome scores, and various international assessments present important benchmarks and performance measures (Wang, 2012). In academia, however, employability causes controversy as many academics feel the employability agenda is too driven by the government and economic motivations while faculty are driven to protect the “traditional liberal idea’” of education. Hence, many academics believe the curriculum should focus on making the students experts in the subject, with employability skills emerging as a by-product of the educational experience (Maher & Graves, 2008).

On the other hand, academic qualifications are often taken for granted and the “first tick” in the box before employers look at potential candidates in more detail and assess individual characteristics. Graduate employability has become a benchmark and a measure of success in the HE sector, and universities have acknowledged the “need for graduates to develop a range of personal and intellectual skills beyond specific expertise in an academic discipline”, Shah, A; Pell, k. and Brooke, P. (2004). Institutions have increasingly shifted their focus towards graduate employability rather than knowledge acquisition, and degree- level studies now tend to focus on both subject-specific knowledge as well as transferable skills.

Employability and the role of education mobility

Internationalisation and student mobility present another layer of a dynamic that affects the labour market, the HE landscape, and how they interlink. Internationalisation and globalisation have increased the need for intercultural competencies in graduates. Employers have recognised that staff with an understanding of cultural issues and the ability to manage international relationships are a valuable resource, and universities talk more and more about curricula internationalisation (Crossman & Clark, 2010).

Research suggests that there is a link between an international experience, the potential for personal change, and the acquisition of a particular set of skills. Previous studies revealed significant improvement in areas such as open mindedness and the appreciation of diversity, as well as flexibility and cross-cultural adaptability, and highlighted the increasing understanding of foreign languages and culture (European Commission, 2014). These are all attributes that are highlighted as “important skills” in today’s labour market. Social and intercultural competence, generally defined as “the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations based on one’s intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes” (Deardorff, 2006) are important tools for graduates in the transition from education to the work place as intercultural competencies becoming deciding factors for employers in a globalised labour market. A study conducted by Hinchcliffe and Jolly in 2010 showed that over 75% of employers valued cultural and social awareness when hiring and promoting staff.

Education and employability in China

Since China moved from a state controlled to a devolved education system, investments in education have increased considerably, and despite the costs attached to it, the demand for university education is high and likely to increase with rising wealth. The government is moving towards a knowledge-driven economy and the majority of Chinese parents aspire to tertiary education for their children. The competition for places in top institutions is high, and tutoring to pass the gaokao3 exam has become the norm.

As a result of increasing demand and substantial investments, China’s higher education sector has expanded very rapidly. The number of HEIs has increased by around 8% since 2012, and with 42 million enrolled students in 2016, China now produces more university graduates per annum than U.S. and European institutions, combined. While China was largely an agrarian economy, the service sector has grown fast and has become the main economic driver. Today, China ranks as the second-largest economy in the world and represents an important consumer market. McKinsey reports that Chinese households are becoming more affluent: 78% of China’s urban population is predicted to be “middle-class” by 2022 and the number of Chinese multimillionaires is forecast to increase by 75% (McKinsey, 2013).

The thriving economy paired with an improvement of employment opportunities and a more liberal lifestyle in China has resulted in an increase of returnees in recent years. The transition from a highly planned and restricted to a more mobile and flexible market has caused more young talent to enter China’s labour market - many of them being hai guis, or “Sea Turtles” (foreign-educated, experienced, and highly skilled graduates) (Hao & Wen, 2016).

University graduates in China used to be guaranteed jobs in the public sector, but with the changing labour market situation and the increasing number of highly qualified graduates the public sector has become overstaffed and unemployment rates among graduates and youths is higher than the Chinese average. This situation is largely driven by an increasing tertiary education graduation rate which is flooding the Chinese labour market - unemployment and underemployment are both results of this development. While competition among graduates in government and the public sector is still high, graduates are also increasingly looking to the private sector and international firms for employment, and since the era of the planned economy and the “iron rice bowl” practice of guaranteed employment ended, indigenous Chinese university leavers are now also flooding the market. The economy, however, still doesn’t generate enough jobs to absorb the high number of graduates each year (Hao & Welch 2012). Still, despite the surplus supply of graduates, employers report a lack of skills, poor attitudes, and unrealistic expectations and complain of difficulty in finding suitable talent. Young employees, on the other hand, report a lack of on-the-job training and of discrimination (Wang, 2012).

In an overcrowded labour market, Chinese graduates face fierce competition for graduate-level jobs and need to set themselves apart to successfully compete for desirable employment upon graduation. An international qualification is expected to be one way to facilitate early and mid-career gains - particularly for those who did not secure a place in one of China’s top universities. Hao and Welch (2012) argue that international exposure is a unique treasure among the repertoire of personal skills and knowledge, and confers an advantage to the individual. In addition, formal endorsement through the government4 and private enterprises has helped to create a positive external environment for returnees in recent years. Another policy that favours potential returnees is the conferment of a local hukou5, a governmental system of household registration in mainland China and Taiwan, upon return which makes hukou transfers much more accessible for graduates with international qualifications as they may choose their preferred cities for employment in China and transfer their hukou appropriately. For domestic graduates, on the other hand, it remains difficult to transfer their hukou and gain formal status as a local outside their “area” (Hao & Welch, 2012).

However, physical absence from China for several years can also result in a certain loss ofguanxi (Hao & Welch, 2012), and while there are clear connections between employability outcomes and an international education experience, recent studies have suggested that those who have a foreign (most often Western) degree often have overly high expectations with regard to their working environment and earning potential compared to their nationally educated peers (Hao & Wen, 2016).

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