China's national postgraduate entrance exam began on Saturday with 1.2 million registered participants, 6.3 percent down from 2007 and the first drop in almost a decade.
The number of people registering to take the exam soared from 319,000 in 1999 to 1.28 million last year, an average annual increase of 17.2 percent. But the current drop left hints in 2007 that the growth was simply 0.7 percent.
Insiders attributed the fall to a changing employment market, the reduced quality of postgraduate education and increasing costs in postgraduate courses.
China began expanding its university recruitment in 1999 and the number of college graduates had reached record high for years. This led to tough competition for employment.
This year's output is expected to be 5.5 million graduates.
"I took graduate courses mostly because it would be easier to find a job with a higher diploma," said Zeng Minghua who received a master's degree in 2001.
However, with the increasing recruitment in the past few years, a higher diploma does not always get the reception expected.
Currently, about 1.5 million people are studying in graduate courses nationwide.
A Peking University Public Policy Institute report issued last month said 66.66 percent of graduates with a master's degree found jobs in July. This was only slightly higher than the 65.52 percent for those with a bachelor's degree.
The stereotype that higher education brings more promising career prospects is also challenged by changing attitudes of employers.
"We are looking for employees who are worth the pay," said Zhang Changwu who runs a company in the southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. "If a graduate and postgraduate have similar skills and experience, we will pick the former for the sake of a lower salary."
The whole society, including employers, are more rational towards degree and diploma holders and many are inclined to take account of skill and experience, said Mao Zuheng, an expert from University of Science and Technology Beijing.
Others also question the quality of graduate courses at some universities.
Professor Qian Zongfan of Guangxi Normal University reasoned that while the number of graduate students had increased, the number of faculty had not. "Obviously, students will not receive as good training as before. A tutor might have 20 to 30 students now, compared with two or three 10 years ago," he said.
This year, some candidates were held back because of a new tuition policy.
Domestic universities usually sort their postgraduate students into two categories according to their performance in the entrance exam. Those with higher scores enjoy free education in all two or three academic years and the others pay themselves.
But last year, 17 universities, including the elite Tsinghua, Peking and Fudan schools, replaced the one-off policy with yearly scholarships based on academic performance.
This year, all 56 universities that offer postgraduate courses will adopt the same policy, the Ministry of Education stipulated.
Among the 1.2 million sitting for the exam, many hope to find a good job but not through a diploma.
"Many of my classmates take graduate courses here because they want to stay in Beijing, a big city offering more opportunities," said Wang Dan, a postgraduate at the Beijing-based Communication University of China. She said the two or three-year courses can act as a cushion to explore the job market locally.
But others are also interested in doing research and teaching on campus.
Compared with the cooling enthusiasm for the postgraduate entrance exam, the civil servant recruitment examination is, in contrast, red hot. A record 640,000 people competed for 14,000 government jobs this year, up 12 percent from 2007.
Although the competition is tougher than the postgraduate entrance exam, it gives successful candidates access to a stable income, high social status and good welfare insurance.
China, however, faced a tough task in 2007 with a reported 12 million people unemployed in cities. Despite this, it set a goal to add nine million new jobs last year.
Experts noted unemployment may get worse due to a tightening monetary policy the country adopted for this year.
(Xinhua News Agency January 20, 2008)