Sunday, January 04, 2009

Educated Elite?

The BBC’s publication of an article on how the current financial crisis is hitting not only Chinese factories, production, and the economy at large, but will directly squeeze the college students set to graduate in the summer. This, of course, goes without saying and is likely true of most countries across the world. I can vouch for the market shock has left friends with jobs threatened, lost, or never found to begin with. But the issue in China hits a spot that has already been weakened by years of growing tension.

In 1999, the Chinese government decided upon a generally beneficial and highly laudable program of education opportunity expansion that would dramatically increase the number of students enrolled in institutes of higher education. What had previously been available to a mere few would now be possible for far more as the government pressed to draw ever more people into the benefits of the developing economy. The results, as can be seen in the graph below, were dramatic.Within just a few years, the number of students enrolled in college quadrupled, expanding education opportunities to a previously unheard of scale. The problem with this was that economic growth was not keeping pace, or at least not in the way that had been hoped. Much of China’s growth has been in areas of production. The development of sectors that require highly trained, better educated populations have developed, but at a much slower pace, and certainly not in the exponential way that college enrollment has increased.

This became and remains problematic for a number of reasons. To begin with, it meant that far too many graduates were finding themselves unemployed or “underemployed” (employed in jobs or fields that either paid far less than expected or that could have been obtained without the investment in a college education). A second problem has been that this is a compounded crisis. Each year a larger number of graduates than before end up without suitable work and they are added to the prior pool of still unemployed graduates. In 2004, the first year that the boom classes began to graduate, this excess number of graduates was about half a million. That number has increased by around 200,000-300,000 each year. As Chris Hogg notes in the BBC article, there are an estimate six and a half million students graduating this next year. There were two and a half million in 2004.

Even before the current financial crisis, economic pressure was etched into the lives of Chinese students. Having had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of students in multiple major cities, I found that jobs and financial security was one of the most commonly discussed topics, competing tightly with the issues of dating and relationships for the lead. But even relationships eventually lead to discussions of economic solvency as young men bewail the twin curses of likely not having the economic stature to get married until their mid thirties (counting a well paid job, car, and apartment as must haves and calculating based on expected salaries after graduating) and seeing the most desirable of their female classmates often choosing to marry up – finding a financially established though older man. Female students often discuss their college years as a time to play around in relationships – to fall in and out of love – because their choices concerning marriage will be more pragmatically motivated. It also goes without saying that the pressures of the one Child policy and the necessity that such a single child provide for both his parents and grandparents is universally felt.

The government is promising job creation. This, however, may prove a pipe-dream as the economy continues to contract. It is also important to note that creating more jobs for struggling graduates has been tried before but to little effect. Nine million jobs is the exact number that the government promised to create in 2003 to meet the needs of the coming graduate class. That scheme was nearly imperceptible in terms of overall impact over the next few years (China Daily December 23, 2003).

As much as the media has pointed to the closing of factories and the return of migrant workers to their hometowns as an anxious and unemployed class as a possible source of social instability, unemployed college graduates may be an even bigger problem. For starters, workers are much more likely to act locally, responding to specific grievances through specific means with very tangible ends in mind. They are also limited in terms of the scope of their activities. Local disturbances, though sometimes large (hence the popular use of the term “mass disturbances”) rarely expand beyond their locale. Students are a frighteningly different story. These unemployed masses are far more interconnected as they have grown up with a healthy diet of cell-phones, text messages, blogs and BBS boards. These are the engines of widespread mass movements over the last few years. The anti-Japan riots in 2005 and anti-French protests of last year were all products of mobilization via internet resources, as are the frequent and frightening human flesh searches. This is the playground of the jobless student.

Students graduating without jobs also have a bit more to gripe about. This is not in regards to their level of estrangement from the benefits of the state, but more in terms of their having invested heavily and lost out. The amount of pressure, studious hours, and money spent to get a student into and through college is enormous. To emerge from that process jobless or with prospects no different than one who had never entered at all is a hard for most students to simply accept. It would be hard to imagine these students not exhibiting some form of frustration; the questions remain what form, at whom and to what degree.

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