A high degree of futility
HK’s university graduates often end up in jobs that do not match their hard-earned credentials, if they managed to land a job at all. A report by Pearl Liu.
It is Monday morning, at 7:30, when Michelle Tong rolls out from the upper bunk bed that she shares with her little sister. She puts on a T-shirt and jeans. She had hoped to become a corporate executive, working in one of the swank offices in Central, but finds herself working as a marketing assistant with a local publishing company in Sai Wan Ho.
“Central. That was my dream,” she says, grabbing a pineapple bun and a milk tea at a breakfast stand. “Once I graduated from university, I thought I would be one of those girls in black dresses and high heels, Starbucks in one hand, Blackberry in the other, walking and talking fast. I was going to live in my own apartment, even though small and rented. None of that was achieved. Maybe, I thought too much of myself.”
Hong Kong is one of the busiest cities in the world. It’s also one of the most expensive. The city boasts one of the greatest concentrations of wealth anywhere. The harsh reality is that today’s university graduates are far less likely than their parents’ generation to achieve the trappings of success that once accrued almost by right to university graduates.
A year and a half after graduating from City University of Hong Kong, Tong earns HK$17,000 a month. That’s a little better than the median monthly earnings of all Hong Kong workers, HK$14,000 a month, according to statistics from the second quarter of this year.
Citing the annual Graduate Employment Surveys conducted by the eight public higher education institutions, the Education Bureau spokesman says average annual salaries for fresh graduates have risen 56.7 percent over the past decade from HK$134,000 in 2004 to HK$210,000 in 2014, an average of around HK$17,500 per month. That’s before taxes and deductions.
A study by New Forum, a think tank, shows the median monthly salary for university graduates born between 1989 and 1993 was HK$10,860 in 2013, 17 percent lower than graduates were being paid in 1993. Back then graduates born between 1969 and 1973 were earning a median rate of HK$13,158.
The report, based on quarterly employment data compiled by the Census and Statistics Department between 1993 and 2013, reveals that over the span of two decades, the Composite Consumer Price Index rose from 82.7 to 120.2. Prices rose, but the median incomes for newly- minted university graduates has dropped significantly.
“There was a mismatch between the types of degrees available for study and the jobs up for grabs. Many, for example, are majors in business and management. (Graduates holding) the most popular degrees in Hong Kong have ended up as office clerks in a highly competitive market. This does a great deal to drag down the median income,” said Chan Wai-keung, a council member of New Forum and a lecturer at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s College of Professional and Continuing Education.
Average monthly rent, for a one-bedroom apartment outside Central, is around HK$11,500, according to the available listings compiled by Numbeo over the past 12 months. A more centrallylocated property of similar dimensions would eat up Tong’s entire income.
“The job is not bad. It is just different from what I thought. I actually felt grateful when my boss offered me the job after I had sent out hundreds of applications and got no response in two months,” she recalled. “I did not talk too much about my job with my family. They had high expectations of me.”
“My parents always believed a university degree would get me a ‘polished’ job, but I learned it’s just not that easy, or maybe it’s just me,” she sighs.
Upward mobility requires much greater exertion than in the past, even for degree holders like Tong.
“The 1980s or late 1970s was the transition when that generation really came up,” said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, and author of A Modern History of Hong Kong. “In those days, you could graduate from the University of Hong Kong or the Chinese University of Hong Kong and you got a good job almost right away and would rise very quickly. These people are now in their 50s.”
Back in 1992, only two universities in Hong Kong would offer degree programs. There are 19 today. The number of students enrolled in courses funded by the University Grants Committee (UGC) is 97,000 this term, about 30 percent higher than in 1995. As a result, about 21 percent of Hong Kong’s population has a bachelor’s degree or higher. The number of career paths promising upward mobility, on the other hand, has not risen nearly as quickly.
“People in the 1950s and 1960s worked menial jobs, seven days a week, to put their children through university, as that guaranteed (their children) would have better jobs, as soon as they came out of university. The graduates of that era, the 1970s and 1980s, became the upper echelon of the middle class. Their children, on the other hand, don’t have the same opportunities when they finish university. This is the result of the expanding income differential,” said Tsang.
The Education Bureau says the government is “dedicated to promoting and enhancing the quality of post-secondary education in Hong Kong”, now that 46 percent of young people with post-secondary education have access to degreelevel education, among the 70 percent eligible for sub-degree education or higher.
“There is no evidence to show that our degree graduates are less competitive than before,” said Tsang.
The problem really is not access to education. It is that the number of graduates is much higher than what the market needs.
“One of the reasons, we believe, is in the slow expansion of middle-class jobs in the overall labor market in Hong Kong since the mid-1990s. Young adults are the ones most affected, because they have no labor market experience,” said Professor Stephan Chiu, co-director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Owing to the expansion of higher education and the stagnant growth of middle class jobs, it is inevitable that some graduates may not be able to land professional and managerial jobs.”
According to a study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the percentage of young university graduates getting hired as managers, administrators and professionals dropped from 82.5 percent in 2001 to 73.4 percent in 2011. More degree-holders have taken up clerical jobs, up from 11 percent to 18.2 percent during the same time. In the past, young people with only secondary school education would do clerical jobs.
“I heard that the competition is fierce and that being jobless for several months after graduation is common,” said 22-year-old Elaine Cheung, in the final year of her undergrad studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “I have told my parents that I still might need to rely on them for a while (after graduation).”
Up to 9 percent of local young people aged 20 to 24 were unemployed last year. The overall unemployment rate was 3.4 percent in 2014.
“You really had to be pretty much of a failure if you graduated from the University of Hong Kong and then not made it in the 1980s and the 1990s. It would still be true today, but now you have eight (public) universities in Hong Kong. And there are a significant number of them not making it,” said Professor Tsang.
Owing to the expansion of higher education and the stagnant growth of middle class jobs, it is inevitable that some graduates may not be able to land professional and managerial jobs.”
Stephan Chiu, co-director, HK Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, CUHK