It is believed that, in terms of producing college graduates, China has outstripped the United States and Europe in college graduate numbers (Schleicher, 2016). In 2014, a record 7.49 million new graduates entered the labor market. 92.1 percent of them had found jobs in the six months after graduation, and the full-time employment rate was 79.2 percent (MyCOS Research, 2015). This means over a million fresh graduates are precariously employed or unemployed.
New Graduates in In-work Poverty
Millions of graduates struggle to survive in China’s metropolises. A large number of them collectively live in the suburbs of the cities, like ants living in ant tribes (Fish, 2015; Lian, 2009). The “ants,” identified as a new social class, failed to achieve the attractive “middle-class dream,” which was common for them and their families to expect before their graduation.
Who will be the “ants” after graduation? As several snowball survey findings suggest (see Wen and Ngok, 2011), most of the ants are from the following categories:
1. Fresh graduates: in general, they have left school for not more than five years, and are experiencing school-to-work transition.
2. Unemployment or informal employment: due to graduation from second tier schools or unpopular subjects studied, and with their lack of experience, they may only get relatively low paying jobs at the current stage.
3. Rural to urban migration: most of them are from underdeveloped and developing rural regions. They prefer to stay in urban China to earn a better life.
4. De-familization: because of migration, they leave their families of origin, and live in cities as single households. Their poor families of origin is unable to provide full social and financial support for these graduates’ lives in the city. The graduates have to earn their own livelihoods in the metropolises.
5. High-level commodification: As migrants without local household registration status, they are always ineligible for social welfare and public services. Even if they may have been enrolled in some social protection programs, given their age, their enrolment in social protection means they have to make contributions from their meagre salaries instead of receiving benefits from them. They have to meet their basic human needs by purchasing goods and services from commercial market.
Due to their low incomes but high expenses, and without strong family support, the “ants” fall into in-work poverty in urban China: they are in the labor market either working or looking for work, but their incomes fall below the poverty level.
Spatial/Social Mobility and Urbanization
From rural poverty to the working poor in urban cities, what are the roles of higher education in the social mobility of educated rural youth in China?
Urban households and metropolitan life are the Chinese people’s collective aspiration, especially for children and youth in rural regions, because of the urban–rural dual structure and developmental urbanism (Solinger, 1999). In the socialist era, several institutions such as the household registration system, the system of assigning jobs to work units, and the personal dossier system, rigidly controlled people crossing the boundary of the rural–urban divide.
The essence of higher education is “not being confined by borders” (Teichler, 2012, p. 1). Apart from the production and distribution of knowledge and the promotion of employability, higher education is a shortcut to spatial mobility and urbanization for rural youth under institutional constraints.
For the sake of population management, transferring household registrations and personal dossiers from home to college is an important step for fresh students to complete their registration at their colleges and universities. Fresh students with a poor rural background will have a collective urban household status and will be eligible for special government welfare payments (e.g., student medical insurance, student loans) during their study period, which lasts for at least three to four years. The status change and freedom of movement are earned by their academic performance in secondary school and the employability made possible by higher education.
On one hand, higher education and employment have successfully achieved the “urbanization of educated rural youth” by providing spatial mobility and enhancing the graduates’ employability in the labor market (Mok, Wen and Dale, 2016). This success is in line with the state’s considerations of the massification of higher education in elite universities and second tier colleges to “boost domestic demand, stimulate consumption, promote economic growth, and relieve employment pressure” (Zhu, 1999).
More development-oriented social policies for employability enhancement, such as internship programs, are needed to help the educated youth climb up the social ladder.
On the other hand, in the process of urbanization, students’ individual social connections have been restructured. In fieldwork, many respondents expressed the view that they are leading a wandering life without a sense of home in their current city or hometown.
These graduates may go back to their rapidly developing hometowns or to other megacities to seek employment. Thus, many new graduates are not eager to register as local residents after graduation, because they have not decided where to settle down at that stage. They try to maintain the individual flexibility and adaptability to cope with the uncertainties of the liquid modern society (Dale, 2015).
Spatial mobility from home to university and the subsequent mobility from the rural peasant to the urban employee class provide graduates with experiences of upward social mobility. They may work as office clerks or salespeople in better work environments than those of migrant workers without higher education. In this sense, higher education brings benefits to educated rural youth.
Employability, Social Capital and Social Justice
However, the quality and sustainability of upward mobility need to be carefully examined. Urbanization and social upward mobility in terms of spatial mobility has individualized graduates’ social connections in the host city.
In acquiring continuous upward mobility in the future, social connections and employability are again highlighted by respondents in empirical studies. Employability becomes crucial for graduates to obtain employment. They are willing to accept their current low salaries in the hopes of strengthening their social capital and employability. Thus, employability enhancement has become a lifelong project for the new generation (Dale, 2015). It suggests that the notion of “employability” exacerbates the class-based structure of the valorization of qualifications, through the operation of mystique, class differences, and forms of social capital in opportunities to valorize.
The emphasis on individual abilities or employability suggests that performance and skills-based employment systems have replaced neo-traditionalism in socialist work units (Walder, 1986). However, graduates’ employability depends highly on employers’ subjective judgments which are in relation to the redistribution of social relations and not just material interests like wages. Individual employability — in the forms of abilities, skills, strengths, and capabilities — is frequently adopted by graduates to explain their successes or failures in both job seeking and career advancement. However, a higher education degree is no longer a guarantee of employability.
Employability marks the transition of authority over the aspects that count as “employable” to employers (Dale, 2015). If students have diverse social connections and rich social capital, then they can be in touch with several potential employers who may recognize their employability. These connections are particularly important for students who want to start a career in a field that is different from the main subjects studied in higher education.
In conclusion, social justice is not only the morally proper distribution of social benefits and burdens among society’s members (Young, 1990, p. 16), but is also generated and maintained through particular forms of social relations (Ferge, 1978; Robertson and Dale, 2013; Walker, 1984). As one of the most significant social policy changes, China’s massification of higher education determines not only the distribution of resources (e.g., bachelor’s degree, entry level job and salary) but also the differentiation of social relations in society. Based on their personal experiences of higher education, job hunting, and daily life, new graduates have focused on individual striving and personal employability, rather than social solidarity and cohesion (Mok, Wen and Dale, 2016). More development-oriented social policies for employability enhancement, such as internship programs, are needed to help the educated youth climb up the social ladder.
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