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.

China Daily (Canada) - - HONG KONG -

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

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