September 27, 2012 10:53 am

Chinese students buck export slowdown

Newly graduated Chinese students gather for a convocation ceremony at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei in east China's Anhui province©AFP

Chinese graduates: dream jobs are scarce

In a blue-collar suburb of Detroit, an old school has been converted into a dormitory for 88 students from China. Just outside Philadelphia, four Chinese teenagers live with a teacher while they attend another school.

Chinese families are sending their children overseas to study in larger and larger numbers, and at younger and younger ages. The shift is partly due to dissatisfaction with the gruelling gaokao college entrance exam.

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Mao Ruoqing, who sent his daughter to study outside Philadelphia when she was 16, says “studying in China is too hard”. His daughter Chuyun says she would not mind taking the Chinese exam but her father is vehement: “I went through it, I know what gaokao is about: you waste too much time on fruitless things”.

More than 1m Chinese students seem to agree. This year, only 9.15m took the exam, compared with 10.5m in 2008. The Chinese education ministry says 20 per cent of the reduction is explained by overseas study. International schools in China are not an option for most students because of government restrictions on domestic enrolment.

“It is such a pain to take the college entrance exam – you spend a whole year studying a little bit of knowledge over and over again, and then you forget all of it in two years’ time,” Lu Kaitong, now a freshman at University of Southern California, said in a documentary about overseas student life made by film-maker He Jiayin.

The Chinese mainland is the world’s largest source of students studying outside their home country. Last year there were 340,000 of them, a figure that has risen over 20 per cent a year for the past several years, according to figures from the education ministry.

But the number of younger students is rising even faster. Pre-university numbers grew 30 per cent last year according to official statistics which do not give a total. Attitudes are changing also. A recent poll of China’s notoriously overprotective parents, published in state media, showed that many now believe high school is the best time to study overseas.

Chen Wenjing of New Oriental Vision Overseas Consulting in Shanghai, which trains and places children for overseas study, says parents who want their children to study abroad often start as early as kindergarten with bilingual education. “The sooner the children go to study in America, the more quickly they adapt to the life and culture there,” she says – and that gets them into better universities.

Students these days are less affluent too. The richest among them get the most publicity – like Bo Guagua, the Harrow-Oxford-Harvard educated son of disgraced Communist party official Bo Xilai and convicted murderess Gu Kailai.

But last year, three-quarters of Chinese students abroad came from families with income under Rmb300,000 ($47,000) per year, an upper middle class income in the biggest cities.

The shift comes as Chinese families are also emigrating, or considering emigration, in larger numbers. China last year overtook the UK to become the largest source of Australian immigrants.

Most expect overseas education to guarantee a good job, but a recent survey of the richest 100 Chinese born after 1980 showed only six studied overseas. Guo Guangchang, chairman of Fosun, China’s largest private conglomerate, decided not to study abroad and used his savings instead to start his first business.

Ms Mao, who has just started 11th grade at a private day school outside Philadelphia, says it was hard to go alone to the US at such a young age but “everyone was so nice”. True, she says, the cafeteria food is “not that good”, and she does not get Chinese food often.

“But we go to Philadelphia Chinatown when we really don’t want to cook [Chinese food ourselves]”, she says.

Ms Mao says her goal – unlike that of many Chinese students – is not to get into Yale or even to get good grades. Like the typical American teen that she resembles with her braces, suntan and twang, she sees education more as a voyage of self-discovery (even though it costs her father $100,000 a year).

But recruitment experts question whether that money will pay off in the job market. Not all returnees are reaping big rewards, for example. A recent report by Zhaopin, a Chinese employment agency, said 70 per cent of local companies give no hiring preference to overseas-educated candidates, while nearly 90 per cent said they command either no salary premium or only a small one.

“The days of just studying overseas and thinking you will command a higher salary [in China] are over,” says Simon Lance, director for Hays, an employment agency.

Additional reporting by Yan Zhang

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