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Too many researchers for China?

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“Chinese Universities are getting too successful. Tell them to stop. We need workers more than graduates. Workers are not enough, whilst academics cannot find a job”. Qiang Wang - Director of the Western Research Centre for Energy and Eco-Environmental Policy at the Xinjiang Ecology and Geography Institute (Chinese Science Academy of Urumqi) - recently published on Nature his “out of the blue” appeal: China needs workers more than academics. A contradiction for a Country increasingly becoming a power among knowledge-based economies. A specular and opposite request in respect to nearby countries’ politics, such as South Korea and Japan, where graduates are now 60% of the entire population aged 25-34.

Is perhaps Qiang Wang’s appeal beating the retreat for the knowledge-based economy? And could it be true that Italy has too many graduates (even though they are less than 20% among youngsters), as many like to repeat?

Answering is not simple. China is a completely separate world, but its influence on all the other countries is obviously quite big.

The Dragon’s economy grew at the highest rate in the last thirty years worldwide. Today, even though it has slowed down, China still boasts the highest GDP growth rate on Earth. The driving force of Chinese economy is the manufacturing industry, which exports to any foreign markets. However, in the last thirty years, Chinese industrial products substantially changed. Low-tech products (made by low-qualified workers) more and more often left their place to high-tech products made by high-qualified personnel. China is today the first high-tech products exporter and, after US, the biggest producer worldwide.

High-qualified workers – according to the French analysts Guilhem Fabre and Stéphane Grumbach – played a decisive role in this extremely quick transformation.

Why then are young graduates, often holding a PhD, having hard times finding a job? Chinese have always considered high education the fastest social lift: becoming University teachers or researchers represents a change of status (a change of social class, even though in China – theoretically - social classes do not exist). 

This process has been enormously fostered by the State, both quantitatively – new University applications went from one million in 2000 to 7 million in 2012 – and qualitatively, since the government aims to achieve quality standards similar to the US Universities through extremely generous funding. Investments for scientific research have been growing at the amazing rate of 20% yearly for more than 20 years, making China the biggest investor in research and development worldwide after the United States, with an allocation of 1.6% of the GDP(but the government has the intention to spend 2.5% of the GDP by 2020). Researchers went from 0.4 million in 1990 to 0.7 million in 2000 and now to 1.5 million in 2012. Chinese researchers’ community is the biggest in the world and scientific production boomed as well. According to Thomson Reuters data, scientific articles written by Chinese scientists passed from few hundreds in 1981 to 30,000 in 2001 and more than 150,000 in 2011. Quality has grown together with international esteem. Qiang Wang himself acknowledged that in 2000 there were only 12 Chinese articles on Nature, whilst in 2012 they were 303.

Given this amazing acceleration, it is no wonder that the Chinese market is struggling to absorb so many young graduates who desire University jobs, whilst the province of Guangdong alone is short of one million qualified workers.

It is not about the number of graduates, then. Young graduates’ expectations are not in line with the market demand, which requires more and more qualified workers for the industry. Perhaps young Chinese graduates should change expectations, not degree levels.

As also stated by the recent OECD report Education at a glance 2013, in fact, the crisis is affecting every working area, but degrees still give more chances to get a job.

In 2008, jobless youngsters in all the OECD countries were 13.6% of the total. Jobless young graduates, however, were only 4.6%. A 9-points difference. Unemployment increased considerably in 2011: jobless youngsters without a degree went up to 18.1% of the total (a 4.5-point increase) and jobless young graduates became 6.8% of the total (a 2.2-point increase). The difference now exceeds 11 points. A degree, then, is still worthy. In China as in the rest of the world.



-       Qiang Wang, China needs workers more than academics, Nature, vol. 499, pag. 381, 23 luglio 2013, http://www.nature.com/news/china-needs-workers-more-than-academics-1.13428 

-       2013 Global R&D Funding Forecast, R&D Magazine, http://www.rdmag.com/digital-editions/2012/12/2013-r-d-magazine-global-funding-forecast

-       Jonathan Adams, David Pendlebury, Bob Stembridge, Building BRICKs, Thomson Reuters,  http://sciencewatch.com/sites/sw/files/sw-article/media/grr-brick.pdf

-    Guilhem Fabre & Stéphane Grumbach, The World upside down, China’s R&D and innovation strategy,   Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme,  http://hal.inria.fr/docs/00/68/63/89/PDF/FMSH-WP-2012-07_Fabre-Grumbach.pdf

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