They are known as the “ant tribe” (see WiC58): university graduates who live in cramped conditions in cities like Beijing and Shanghai because they can’t find a job or are struggling to make ends meet on low salaries.
After a 12-year expansion in the numbers of graduates from higher education, China is awash with degree-holders searching for jobs. And this is forcing a rethink in policy terms, with fears that high unemployment amongst the educated could lead to wider discontent. As a result the authorities are said to be ordering universities to cut courses or downsize student numbers. Particuarly at risk are subjects where fewer than 60% of graduates have managed to find work for two consecutive years.
In a notice circulated to universities across the country last month, the Ministry of Education described the situation facing graduates as “grim” and ordered that institutions do more to help their students find jobs.
“China’s economic development …is still very complicated and there are still many unstable and uncertain factors,” the Ministry noted.
“Pressure is being created by the high volume of graduates, yet the structure of the economy means they cannot all be employed.”
University attendance has risen sevenfold since 1998, when the government ordered an expansion of higher education in the hope that it would lead to more white-collar jobs, as well as stimulate domestic demand.
More than a decade on, blue-collar industries remain the backbone of China’s economy and many of the six million new graduates who hit the employment market every year often find themselves either jobless or competing for low-paid positions they don’t particularly want (for more on this topic, see WiC99).
By contrast, skilled migrant workers can often take their pick of the jobs on offer, and as a group enjoy much higher employment levels, Mao Shuchao, former vice-president of the Shanghai Education Research Institute told World University News last month.
Whether the university graduates would put up with the terms and conditions on offer to many of the migrants is questionable. But Mao and other labour experts have been lobbying for more vocational training in China, saying that the university boom since the late 1990s needs to focus more directly on the needs of the domestic economy.
Other academics have come out against the Ministry’s latest directives, saying it is difficult to calculate which courses lead to useful employment, and that arts degrees are likely to bear the brunt of any cuts.
Perhaps one of the more surprising opponents of the proposals was Xinhua, which ran a long commentary opposing the move last week. In particular it was worried that the cutbacks might leave China without specialists in subjects that have little market value, such as rare languages and archaeology.
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