Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Gaokao Gateway: How First Academic Degrees Shape Careers in China

Must read

Armed with a master’s degree from one of the world’s top 100 universities and years of international experience, 36-year-old Zhu Lisha from the southern tech hub of Shenzhen expected her credentials to open doors in China’s job market.

But to most employers, only one qualification seemed to matter: where she obtained her first college degree — a factor largely determined by her score in the gaokao, China’s grueling national college entrance examination.

“When I graduated in 2011, employers mainly valued a candidate’s highest education degree. But now, in addition to that, they’ve become increasingly picky about the first college educational record,” Zhu, whose gaokao score was not very high, told Sixth Tone.

For an increasing number of applicants across China, both fresh graduates and mid-career professionals, this phenomenon, dubbed “first-degree discrimination” on social media, is further complicating an already competitive job market.

Those affected often use a popular slogan to sum up the stigma: “In China’s most prestigious universities, bachelors are first-rate, master’s are second-rate, and PhD’s are third-rate.”

This implies that undergraduates from top universities are viewed as premier talents, while those completing their postgraduate studies at the same institutions but with their first degree from a less prestigious university are considered lesser.

The issue drew renewed attention during the recent annual session of China’s National People’s Congress, which concluded earlier this month. Here, Pan Fusheng, an NPC deputy and academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, brought forward a proposal to abolish “first academic degree discrimination.”

Underscoring its impact on postgraduate admissions, the job market, and social equality, Pan called for clearer regulations and a more holistic talent evaluation system. He also encouraged governmental agencies, public institutions, and state-owned companies to take the lead in implementing more equitable hiring practices.

His initiative sparked widespread debate on social media, with a related hashtag on the microblogging platform Weibo generating over 320 million views.

Opinions online and among employers are divided: Some argue against labeling it as discrimination, contending that candidates from prestigious universities have earned their positions by performing well on the gaokao.

Others, however, attribute the trend to heightened competition in the job market, suggesting that companies set high recruitment standards due to the overwhelming number of graduates flooding the job market.

Stress test

Zhu admits her gaokao scores were modest. Rather than retaking the exam — a common route for those looking to enter China’s elite universities — she enrolled in a joint 3+1 education program between a Chinese and a university in the U.K.

After three years of study in China, she earned a vocational degree, followed by a year in the U.K. to obtain a bachelor’s degree and another year for a master’s degree.

In China, higher education includes four levels: vocational degree, undergraduate, master’s degree, and doctoral candidates, each conferring a corresponding diploma or degree.

Entry into these programs typically follows the gaokao, with top scorers gaining admission to full-time bachelor’s programs at prestigious universities like Tsinghua or Peking. Those with lower scores might enroll in three-year programs with a vocational focus, known as zhuanke.

These students then have multiple options. For instance, zhuanke degree holders can pursue a two-year program to upgrade to a bachelor’s degree, while graduates from less prestigious universities might seek master’s or doctoral programs, a choice increasingly popular due to intense competition.

However, vocational degrees, such as the one Zhu obtained, or bachelor’s gained from non-prestigious universities, have long been perceived as inferior to those obtained from prestigious universities. Even though some have managed to further their studies in more prestigious universities, people still associate the former with less capable and academically weaker students.

Zhu graduated with a master of arts degree in 2011, which helped her secure a job at two prominent international companies in China before transitioning to a leading domestic corporation.

On re-entering the job market this year, Zhu says she was taken aback by the stringent and detailed educational requirements companies sought.

“For fresh graduates, some employers sought candidates with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Project 211 universities or higher, and doctoral degrees from the even more selective Project 985 institutions,” she says, referring to two initiatives that include the top 100 ranked Chinese universities.

“If people with a modest first-degree record work hard to earn master’s or doctoral degrees from prestigious universities, shouldn’t that be seen as a sign of their dedication and capability to improve?” Zhu asks. “Why should someone be dismissed solely based on the first degree they obtained?”

To address such concerns, China’s Ministry of Education clarified in 2021 that the concept of a “first-degree record” does not exist in national education policies or administrative documents.

“When we refer to an education record in management, it usually signifies someone’s highest academic degree or the most recently obtained degree,” the ministry explained in response to inquiries from netizens.

Harsh realities

Despite government efforts to address the issue, the job market has remained resistant to change.

According to Li Tao, who advises multiple domestic firms in recruiting talent, the preference for graduates from elite universities should not be seen as discrimination, which he believes occurs when exclusion is based on attributes like race or geographic origin.

“I don’t consider it a form of discrimination since the candidates have been admitted to elite universities through their own hard work,” he argues. He adds that gaokao scores help estimate a candidate’s intellect and problem-solving abilities.

However, Xu Yajuan, who has over 15 years of HR experience in Wuhan’s software development sector, points out that the rising stigma is partly fueled by increased competition for jobs and the surge in college graduates. “Companies elevate their hiring standards not due to the demands of the positions but because of the sheer volume of applicants,” she says.

Official data underscores the intensifying competition in the job market: The number of postgraduates in China has doubled from 621,300 in 2014 to 1.25 million this year.

“With an abundance of candidates from elite institutions, companies often bypass those with degrees from less prestigious universities to streamline their hiring process and boost efficiency,” Xu says.

Echoing this sentiment, a job seeker who asked to be only by the surname Gao tells Sixth Tone: “My interviews often reached the final salary negotiation stage, only to be abruptly stopped once recruiters noticed my first qualification was a vocational degree.”

According to Xu, some companies have even adopted AI-driven recruitment systems that filter candidates using specific keywords, often sidelining those based on their undergraduate education or field of study. It means many resumes may never even reach HR professionals for review.

Xu admits such practices are unfair. “The reality is harsh. It’s an employer’s market at the moment,” she says.

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the state-run China National Academy of Educational Sciences, points to “outsider management” as a key factor behind the trend, where the hiring process is overseen by administrative staff rather than those with a deep understanding of the job’s requirements.

Chu emphasizes that addressing this issue requires a shift from administrative to professional standards in recruitment. “This means a more diversified talent evaluation system,” he says.

Editor: Apurva.

(Header image: VCG)

Latest article