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China parents count cost of sending children to overseas universities

Visitors inquire about schools of USA, UK and other countries at the 2006 China Education Expo on October 14, 2006 in Beijing, China. Photo: China Photos/Getty Images

Jack Ma, one of China’s best-known entrepreneurs, thinks business success in China has nothing to do with prestigious foreign degrees: “When you want to judge whether a person . . . is excellent or not don’t look at whether they went to Harvard or Stanford,” he is famous for saying.

More and more Chinese parents apparently disagree with the co-founder of internet company Alibaba: they are increasingly sding three or four years’ annual family income to send their only child for foreign study. Some are now asking whether it is worth the investment.

The number of Chinese studying overseas has more than tripled in the past decade and continues to shoot up. The rise has been particularly dramatic among lower-middle-class families: according to a report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, up to the end of 2009 students from such families made up only 2 per cent of all those who studied overseas, but by the end of 2010 the proportion had risen to 34 per cent.

For many Chinese families with children overseas, money is no object. But many lower middle-class and working-class families are counting on their only child to support them in their old age.

Foreign universities also increasingly rely on fees from Chinese students to ​boost their income. But is it worth spending Rmb1m-2m ($165,000-$330,00) on preparing for and completing an overseas degree, only to return to a job market where seven million graduates cannot find jobs?

According to Chinese recruitment agencies and human resources professionals, people who have studied overseas – known as “haigui”, or sea turtles, because they have one foot on land and one in the sea – command little if any salary premium when they start entry-level jobs back in China.

Zong Qinghou, China’s second-richest man, sent his only daughter and heir apparent, Zong Fuli, to study overseas. As a result, he told a recent press conference, the thirtysomething Ms Zong “knows neither the current situation for Chinese enterprises nor the situation abroad”.

Jennifer Feng, chief human resources expert at 51job, the leading Chinese employment agency, says there is “no big difference between the starting salaries of those holding overseas or local university degrees”. Gone are the days when an overseas degree ensured a top-paying job.

“The proportion of students studying overseas these days is high and what they study isn’t particularly suitable to the Chinese market,” Ms Feng says, adding that China is no longer sending only its brightest students abroad.

These days a big proportion are average or below-average students who failed to gain entry to university in China. But the foreign institutions they attend may not be top-notch either: “Eighty to ninety per cent of the overseas universities that they attend these days, most people in China have never heard of them”, Ms Feng says. Even studying English overseas is no longer so crucial: job recruiters say they can meet their need for English speakers with locally trained graduates.

Liu Yinwei of Jinzun Investment Consulting was inundated with candidates at a recent job fair in Shanghai, but he was not looking for those with foreign degrees. He has sales jobs to fill and the last time he hired a returnee with a UK master's degree, “he thought he knew a lot and therefore . . . he looked down upon clients”.

For Gao Wei, 25, attending the University of Melbourne was not her first choice, but she did not make the cut for a top Chinese university. Four years in Melbourne cost Rmb1m, she says, and paying it was “no big deal” for her parents, businesspeople in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing. Was it worth it? “It wasn’t my money so I have no views on the return on investment, but I have very beautiful memories of those four years.”

Sandra Yoo, 28, took a different approach: she knew her family could not afford a foreign undergraduate degree, so she studied in China first and then went to the University of York for a one-year master’s in public economics. That year cost Rmb260,000, and her starting salary at a Chinese equities firm was Rmb220,000. She wants her child to study in China first too: “If they go abroad too early they lose their connection with classmates,” she says. In China, classmates often form an invaluable network for business.

Gu Huini, 26, spent Rmb500,000 of her parents’ money getting a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. “Going to the US, the expense is like living in a four- or five-star hotel every day,” she says. Ms Gu, an elegant, poised young woman who speaks excellent English, says she was ill-prepared for her course of study and found the experience so distressing that she joined an education consultancy to help families avoid similar mistakes. Agents themselves can be a big part of the cost of overseas study, though: they charge between Rmb30,000 and Rmb300,000 to arrange overseas admission.

One of China’s first overseas students, Xia Yingqi, now works with the Beijing government to help attract high-level returnees. Is foreign study worth it for the new generation of sea turtles? “It’s really not just about jobs and salaries: living in a foreign country, the whole country is your university,” he says. “I think it’s a good choice.”


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