The ruthlessness of the gaokao, the university entrance exam in China, is well documented. Every year, about 10 million Chinese students take a single two-day exam that basically determines their future. If they pass their tests, they can enter the university of their dreams. if they test poorly, their options narrow significantly – unless they choose to try again next year.
What if I told you that there was another test, even harder than the gaokao?
In 2022, 4.57 million people registered for kaoyan, or take the postgraduate admission examination. This is a 21% increase over 2021 and a record. The number of places in postgraduate programs has not kept pace, however, meaning the admission rate this year could be as low as 24%. It is not a one-time event. Over the past decade competition for the postgraduate exam has become so intense that candidates sometimes joke that it has become “gaokao-ified.
It might be more accurate to say that the postgraduate examination is the new gaokao. By passing the gaokao and getting into college was once a major achievement, these days it’s almost a no-brainer for those who follow it. Since China expanded its higher education system in the late 1990s, gaokao the admission rate rose from 34% in 1998 to 92% last year.
Now that undergraduate degrees are commonplace, students looking to distinguish themselves in the job market have shifted their focus from simply entering college to a top-tier university like Tsinghua or Peking University. Other students – including many who have been tested at average universities on the gaokao – embark on preparing for the postgraduate exam, seeing it as a second chance to prove themselves and get a head start in the job search.
China is not the first country to experience degree inflation. As has happened elsewhere, the problem has been compounded by the state of the national economy and the tightening labor market. Enrollees in this year’s postgraduate tests are mostly new graduates who started their undergraduate studies in 2018. That year, China increased undergraduate enrollment by 910,000 compared to the last year. The labor market was tight before the pandemic, and it has only tightened in the years since.
Given the growth in tertiary enrollment in recent years and broader macroeconomic trends, it is unlikely that the “gaokao-ification” of the graduate school admissions test will be canceled anytime soon. Completing graduate school to get the upper hand in the job market is both more important and more difficult than ever. Meanwhile, as college degrees are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, China faces a frustrating problem: an overeducated workforce.
Simply put, overeducation occurs when an individual’s education exceeds the demands of their job. A global phenomenon, it is particularly common in industrialized economies. According to the researchers, at the beginning of the 21st century, the rate of overeducation in the United States was 20%; in the UK it was 22%. It is the product of the inflation of diplomas — in particular the inflation of higher education diplomas — over the last 50 years.
At the individual level, over-education means that we benefit less from school attendance and that we are less satisfied with the jobs for which our diplomas qualify us; at the social level, over-education represents an enormous waste of investment in human capital.
In a study published last year, my research collaborator, Li Xiaoguang of Xi’an Jiaotong University, and I assessed the evolution of the overeducation of the Chinese urban workforce between 2003 and 2017. Unlike to many Western countries, educational inflation, transformation and changing professional structure have occurred basically at the same time in China. This means that between 2003 and 2017, over-education actually decreased here, mainly because the demand for highly skilled employees increased as the country moved up the global labor value chain.
Breaking things down by generation, however, and a very different picture emerges. Following the enforcement of compulsory education from kindergarten to grade 9 and the expansion of enrollment in higher education, the problem of over-education in China has become worse, not less. Since individuals in the labor market are predominantly in competition with people of their own age, younger candidates are under more pressure than their older counterparts and are more likely to suffer from the devaluation of their qualifications.
We estimated that in 2017, the rate of overeducation among the Chinese workforce was around 35%, considerably higher than that of many Western countries. Since 2017, the gaokao the admission rate rose from 74.5% to 92%. As university degrees become commonplace, companies are adopting new selection criteria. The demand for postgraduate degrees has exploded. Previously, China’s economic transformation and the resulting need for more educated workers helped absorb the supply of college graduates and alleviated the problem of over-education to some extent. However, as economic growth slows, job growth for highly skilled graduates will also slow. By the time today’s graduates complete their studies, having a postgraduate degree will be even less of a guarantee of a good job than it was when they enrolled.
In the West, researchers have found that the relationships between supply and demand in the labor market, as well as the perceived value of college degrees, determine whether students are willing to invest more money in higher education. Studies by labor economists show that since the 1970s, when incomes from college degrees declined, that is, during periods of over-education, many people simply choose not to go to college at all. the university. As the pool of college graduates shrinks, graduate salaries naturally rise accordingly. This makes college a worthwhile investment again, attracting a new generation of young people to enroll.
In China, however, education is of immense cultural importance. The default mindset is always the more educated you are, regardless of your field, the better. This is why the expansion of education has been so important: people are willing to fight for higher education even if there is little or no reward. If this mindset does not change, the problem of over-education in China will only get worse.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Students prepare for the postgraduate entrance examination in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, December 25, 2021. VCG)