Chinese Universities to Temporarily Expand to Fight Unemployment

Faced with economic turmoil, China is tweaking domestic policy in some rather unexpected places to combat rising unemployment. A recent policy directed towards university students reveals the wide range of citizens affected by the economic crisis and the extent of the anxiety within the ruling party.

Numerous newspaper articles have discussed the inability of recent Chinese college graduates to find work. Not only are students lowering their expectation for salaries and benefits, many are unable to find any employment at all. This is particularly troubling given the fact that university graduates represent the crème de la crème of Chinese society. Scoring high enough to enroll in senior high school, much less college, is a coveted privilege given to only a select few students. Thus, this trouble finding jobs at the top of the food chain, so to speak, implies stress at all rungs of society.

The government has taken notice. It has offered seed money for recent graduates to start their own businesses, arranged government funded internships, and expanded educational loans for further study. But this will not be enough. Education officials have convened emergency meetings just last week with university leaders, telling them in no indirect terms that they are to expand enrollment immediately. The government is trying to temporarily expand the universities across the country so that they can a) absorb more high school students that might otherwise search for nonexistent work and b) keep more college graduates in universities for graduate study and thus off the job market.

The first rationale stems from the government's decision to enlarge the size of the high schools feeding into colleges but not the spots awaiting high school graduates in universities. As a result, college admissions remains a serious bottleneck in educational advancement. Not wanting potential drop-outs and college rejects to add pressure to the already dreary job market, the Education Bureau has pushed for a temporary "surge" of enrollment to soak up this group.

The second rationale results from the simple fact that with the unemployment rate rising and 20 million migrants out of work, the government can't afford to have recent college graduates crowding the labor market. As a result, the leadership is requiring national universities to dramatically expand their graduate school enrollment.

All in all, the government plans to expand college admissions by 50,000 across the country. Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University is to take 7,000 additional students, regardless of the institution's ability to accept them. School officials are scrambling to figure out which departments can accept more students and in what capacity.

While the government is certainly worried about the 20 million unemployed migrants as well, migrants are more accustomed to a transient and unstable existence. College graduates on the other hand, have a much lower tolerance for uncertainty given the effort and investment required to get to where they are. The leadership is mindful of this and determined not to have a class of college graduates unemployed and restless -- especially in a year that marks the 20th anniversary of the student-led Tiananmen Square protests.

While it will be a massive burden on the already full universities, it is an intriguing idea. The incremental cost of sending additional students to schools is relatively low and thus the policy is a clever way of taking excess labor off the market in a time of increasing unemployment. Thus, the government hopes to head off the problem with the plan that they see as win-win -- students don't have to look for jobs and the government relieves stress on the labor market. The only losers are of course the universities themselves, who as government institutions, are expected to heed the line, especially in a time such as this. Compliance now, universities have been told, means greater rewards later. Whether the schools can wait that long, handle the increase of students, and more importantly, whether the plan will make a difference at all remains uncertain at best.