CHINA: FEWER “SEA TURTLES” ARE WASHING UP ON US SHORES FOR ACADEMIC CREDENTIALS

ALEX DASHWOOD WRITES — Students from China who have received degrees in higher education overseas—a phenomenon that was promoted as being a leg-up in the job market in China—are currently facing employment struggles in their home country.

These graduates are known as “sea turtles,” and are “Chinese people who have returned to mainland China after having studied abroad for several years.” The term “sea turtle” is “a play on the homophone haigui (海归), meaning ‘return from abroad,’” and is used as a “metaphor since sea turtles also travel great distances overseas.”

The fundamental impetus for “sea turtles” to receive higher education overseas was based on the premise of gaining “skills and knowledge that were then inaccessible in China, but were needed for the country’s development.” It was believed that they would have a competitive advantage in their local job markets because they would have gained a global business perspective not attainable in China. Additionally, studying abroad would give students the ability to speak English, adapt to unfamiliar environments and learn quickly.

Between 1978 and 2006, only about a third of the number of Chinese students who studied abroad actually returned home to work in China. This meant that competition among “sea turtles” who returned home was low, so their competitive advantage against local graduates was high, resulting in better chances for the haigui to gain employment and higher salaries.

Now things have changed. “Sea turtles” are not getting hired as frequently as in the past. Chinese companies have shifted their perspectives on potential talent.  Mainly, businesses in China are “increasingly looking locally, not globally.” They no longer feel that potential Chinese employees with degrees from overseas have skills that put them at a competitive advantage. Quite the opposite! A growing number of Chinese businesses feel that “sea turtles” are not able to adapt quickly enough to local workplace environments, do not work as well under pressure and lack competitive spirit. Additionally, there is little evidence to show “that their English is better than that of local graduates.”

Understandably, then, fewer Chinese students are thinking about pursuing degrees overseas, then moving back home. But not all hope is lost for prospective “sea turtles.” The trend of haigui, at least to some degree, still stands “because of China’s strong job market and its demand for highly educated graduates, which cannot be supplied by [Chinese universities] alone.” US shores still offer promise, but some aren’t sure the swim is worth the effort.

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