Young Chinese Studying Abroad Return Home to 4,000 RMB Salaries

With a foreign degree no longer a guaranteed ticket to a lucrative career, Chinese families and students are reconsidering their reasons for overseas study

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5:26 PM HKT, Mon March 18, 2024 1 mins read

For decades, Chinese families have considered sending their children to study abroad a surefire shortcut to gaining wealth and cementing their social status. This phenomenon actually even predates China’s Reform and Opening Up, with many upper class students having headed overseas in the first half of the 20th century, before a 30-year interregnum. And while Chinese students aren’t going to stop flocking to foreign schools and universities any time soon, rising unemployment and dropping salaries for returning students mean the trend is starting to subtly change.

Studying abroad is still popular: Last year, students who originally planned to study at universities in China but later decided to study abroad increased from 112,000 to 563,000.

However, 2023 employment data for Chinese graduates who studied abroad shows that a foreign degree does not necessarily make finding desirable employment any easier. The annual salary for graduates who studied abroad fell from 268,200 RMB in 2020 to 204,500 RMB in 2023. Within China, the lowest paying jobs for student returnees paid as little as 4,000 RMB (around 556 USD) a month — an extremely low amount even for an entry-level white collar job.

This shift may be caused in part by falling demand for overseas returnees at multinational corporations in China. For high-paying positions in finance and technology, companies are more interested in graduates from China’s prestigious “Project 985” or “Project 211” universities (the country’s leading universities, which receive government support and often have a strong focus on engineering). And students who position their language skills as a key strength are also facing a dead end: With AI on the rise, demand for translation and editing is also decreasing.

The drop in salaries is certainly shocking, but it does speak to other factors besides a cooling economy. For example, while a degree from a relatively prestigious foreign university might look good on paper, many are actually academically easier to gain acceptance to than leading Chinese schools like Peking or Tsinghua University. One Chinese netizen shed light on the situation: “Students who cannot beat the Gaokao [China’s university entry exam] do not have the potential. They think studying abroad can give them an edge in competitive industries.”

Yet the pressures of China’s university admissions system might be the exact reason Chinese parents continue to send their children abroad. Students who cannot beat the Gaokao are attending universities in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand in increasing numbers. Schools in China’s Special Administrative Regions and Southeast Asia are increasingly popular for their relatively low prices and commonalities with Chinese culture, making them an attractive proposition for those who cannot afford schools in the US and Europe, are unable to obtain visas, or are concerned about safety.

It seems that Chinese parents remain committed to building a better future for their children, but how that future is defined — whether by high salaries, or less stressful academic environments and a better work-life balance — is changing.

Banner image via Sohu.

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