A bachelor's degree was not good enough to earn Zhang Changhong, 24, a promotion. The social worker in Huilongguan community in Beijing needed more. "Social work is becoming a sought-after job in China, and it will involve more post-graduates," she said. "Don't call me a loser again!"
That's because Zhang has just applied to study part-time for a master's degree at Beijing City University, the first and only minban, or non-public, university qualified to accept post-graduate students in Beijing.
Zhang's monthly salary is around 2,000 yuan ($314). The shabby apartment she shares with friends costs her around 800 yuan a month. Her daily work is to feed information about the residents in her community into a computer.
In China, a social worker's duties include helping people with family problems, helping the disabled find jobs and making people aware of government policies within the assigned community.
Unfortunately, some are often mistaken for unpaid volunteers, despite having qualifications in psychology or social work and having relevant experience.
Five minban universities authorized by the Ministry of Education (MOE) have started accepting post-graduate students since November.
The State-run higher education institutions used to have absolute monopoly of post-graduate enrollment, and have done so since 1949.
Zhang said she was confident about the tests she would be taking on Jan 7 and 8 next year, on politics, English, social work theory and social work application.
She graduated with a degree in biological engineering from Beijing Technology and Business University. Social work was not her first career choice.
"But I don't want to change jobs anymore, as a social worker's job is becoming popular in China and we would soon be counted among the highly-educated and talented people," she said.
Huilongguan community is one of the largest residential areas in the northern suburbs of Beijing. Around 100 university graduates are employed as social workers in this community.
As part of a government plan, 2 million qualified social workers will be employed by the end of 2015, said a Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) official.
To ensure that it happens, the government intends to adopt payment guidelines and other motivation policies.
"Beijing lacks social workers, and we started the post-graduate program to meet increasing public demand," said Liu Lin, president of the Beijing City University.
Most of the country's social workers do not receive professional training, according to the MCA. Preliminary statistics from the MCA show there are about 200,000 social workers on the Chinese mainland. Only about a quarter have passed the exams required for a license.
Every year, about 10,000 social work majors graduate from 250 higher educational institutions in China. In 2006, nearly 60 percent of them chose to work in other jobs, primarily because of the low salaries and a lack of promotion prospects.
In 1997, the State Council released the Regulations for Running a School by Social Forces, which defined minban education as "schools or educational institutions that are run by corporations, public enterprises, social organizations, social groups, or individual citizens through non-fiscal educational funds".
People tend to prefer programs that award them a certificate in the end whereas minban education comes without a diploma.
By 2010, the number of minban universities reached 866 with 920,000 students in China, according to China Education Daily, a newspaper affiliated to the Ministry of Education.
"It is an obvious signal that the country has begun to equally promote State-run and minban education," said Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a private, non-profit policy-research body.
But people, he said, were still skeptical about the quality of teaching in minban universities in China.