Column: Quality divide in higher education

Written by Amitendu Palit | Updated: Feb 27 2014, 08:35am hrs
Chinas growth as a regional education hub over the last ten-fifteen years has been accompanied by an increase in the number of Chinese studying abroad. While postgraduate education in North America and Europe was always a preferred option for children in affluent Chinese families, the last few years have seen sharp increase in students enrolling in undergraduate courses, even from middle-income families. While this has been a familiar trend in India too, China has been more successful in getting back its students educated abroad. The number of students returning to the mainland after finishing studies abroad has been increasing at an annual rate of more than 30% in recent years.

While Chinese students have been returning to the mainland for several years, the recent upsurge is driven by two factors. The first is the paucity of good professional opportunities in the West following the completion of education. The financial crisis has severely depleted opportunities in the US and UK, particularly for those that are fresh graduates without specialisations. The tendency on part of most, therefore, has been to return. They have also been encouraged by the fact that the while the West has been struggling to recover, China has continued to grow at stable rates. The second important determinant driving the reverse migration has been the proactively encouraging attitude of the Chinese state. China has been providing strong incentives such as favourable taxation policies, generous housing allowance and insurance benefits, settlement allowances for spouses and children, research grants and awards for encouraging overseas Chinese experts to come back to the mainland.

The above factors point to two kinds of attitudes influencing the reverse migration. Experts, particularly those with strong academic achievements, are being pulled back largely by incentives. Others are largely being forced to return due to lack of adequately remunerative opportunities. For both categories, the post-return experiences have not been entirely bright.

Except for experts getting recruited by top-notch domestic universities like Peking, Fudan, Tsinghua and Shanghai Jiaotong, and the high-ranked state-owned enterprises in energy and financial sectors, salary expectations of the returnees have largely remained unfulfilled. Surveys reveal almost 80% of the returnees being disappointed with the salaries they are being paid. This makes the situation rather complicated for those students that come back with middle-level qualifications. Many of them, these days, are no longer from the rich and affluent families. Several of them are from the middle-class. Financing graduate or post-graduate education in the West is a heavily expensive proposition for them. Their families invest in these qualifications on the assumption of their getting jobs in the West enabling them to recover the investment relatively quickly. But recovering the investment from jobs in the mainland is a far more difficult proposition. Many Chinese students and their families are realising this the hard way.

The key question though is why so many Chinese students are travelling overseas, even for obtaining graduate qualifications, despite knowing the risks involved in the decision, and notwithstanding the fact that China has taken large strides in higher education. Though some Chinese universities figure among the top-100 universities of the world, the faith of the resident Chinese in the rest of the seats of higher learning in the mainland appears rather limited. Indeed, the lack of faith in most local higher education institutions appear to be a driving force behind these students moving overseas. In a large number of Chinese households, the inability of children to get admitted in the top-ranking higher education institutions at the college level seems to be inflicting two clear choices: either send children abroad, preferably to the West, or withdraw children from pursuing further higher education. The former are not always particularly conscious of the credentials of the overseas institutions and are essentially keen on sending their children overseas. The latter, mostly families that are lower income or middle-lower income and hailing from Central and Western China, are forced to deprive their children from further higher education due to lack of affordable quality alternatives.

The global financial crisis and limited opportunities in the West do not appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of the Chinese students to study abroad. Latest reports show an almost fifty percent year on year increase in the number of such students. The trend is expected to continue since the brand value of Western higher education appears high among the Chinese families, though the local job market might have become more selective in this regard. The fundamental point to take note though is the lack of faith of local students in most provincial universities and higher education institutions. This is ironical given the huge emphasis China has placed on higher education and in projecting itself as a regional education hub. In a country where the inflow of foreign students is increasing, albeit in selected universities, and foreign universities are lining up for opening offshore campuses, the lack of faith of most in indigenous education reflects the sharp division in quality of higher education and its affordability.

The author is senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. He can be reached at Views are personal