BEIJING – Seven million college students in China are expected to graduate this year and join the ranks of the 3 million unemployed graduates called the Ant Tribe in an already saturated job market.
Lian Si’s recent book “The Ant Tribe” brought notice to the new phenomenon of China’s unemployed graduates. He estimates that there are three million graduates in China without jobs or overqualified for the work they are engaged in.
Deng Kun, biomedical engineering graduate, moved to Beijing after graduation as he “thought there would be a lot of opportunities in the capital.” He soon discovered it was not easy to find a job as an engineer.
“There are lots of people going for each job,” lamented Deng. “That means that companies raise the bar.” For instance, GE told him he would need a master’s degree for an entry-level position, according to CSMonitor.
The growing issue of the unemployed graduate escalated especially since 2003, when an exponential number of students graduated four years after the government’s expansion and privatization of higher education in 1999.
Liu Jun, computer engineering graduate, lives in a crammed 180 square foot room, which he shares the bed with two other men because that is all he can afford in Beijing. The tiny room has just enough space for a wardrobe, a bed and a nightstand. Without air conditioning, the room can feel like a sauna, as the scorching weather sometimes rises above 100 degrees.
“The big gap between the cities and the countryside means that talent and resources all go to the big cities,” explained Lian. “The graduates do not want to go back; they prefer a single bed in Beijing to a house in their hometown.”
Zhang Haijuan, another biomedical engineering graduate choose a different route to her dreams. She stayed in Henan province where she had studied, and worked in a yeast factory for a few years. This gave her the necessary work experience to get the job as a quality controller in a Beijing factory producing medicine.
However, she only takes home 2,500 RMB ($370) a month, which is no more than the salary of an average urban worker in China. The only place she can afford to live is a tiny room in Tangjialing’s enclave, where the buildings resemble a series of dormitories. An estimated 50,000 of the Ant community live in Tangjialing, which is on the suburban fringe of Beijing.
Lian coined the term, Ant Tribe because China’s graduates are just like ants – “intelligent, hardworking and strong in groups.” The postdoctoral student from Beijing University spent two years researching the Ant Tribe community in China’s major cities.
“They share every similarity with ants,” wrote Lian. “They live in colonies in cramped areas. They’re intelligent and hardworking, yet anonymous and underpaid.”
The post 1980’s Chinese are among the most advantaged generation in China’s history. After the communist government moved forward from revolutionary politics, which had triggered turmoil for their parents and grandparents, this new generation has only experienced increasing levels of affluence.
“This is the biggest struggle for China’s young generation today. People in their 40’s and 50’s, now leaders in society, have already experienced hardships, but it’s the younger generation’s turn to face challenges before they become part of the country’s elite.” Liu Neng told Huffington Post. Liu is a sociology professor at Beijing University.
“But if their dreams collapse and they cannot find a good explanation for their failure it could be dangerous,” Lian foresees. “They were taught that knowledge could change their fate, but they find that is not true. If they can’t even find a job, they may oppose society.”
The Real Cost of Higher Education
Education finance specialists say those from poor rural families usually end up paying much higher tuition fees in China compared to children from wealthy urban families.
“The people who receive higher education tend to be relatively better off,” said Wang Jiping, the director general of the Central Institute for Vocational and Technical Education in China.
The national entrance exam tends to lean in favor of rich young urbanites. Top four-year universities, which are concentrated in tier one cities of Beijing and Shanghai, show preference to local high school students by admitting them with lower exam grades. In comparison, students from other locations especially from poor rural areas, have no other choice except to score higher grades to get admitted.
Not many from poor families are able to score top grades on the national exams as they lack resources and access to quality education at the local level. Therefore, these students end up being placed in less prestigious three-year polytechnics. China’s Ministry of Education revealed last year about “80 percent of students at polytechnics were the first in their families to go into higher education.”
Despite higher fees, polytechnics are on the lower rung of educational standards. These institutions offer lower standards as teachers spend less effort and time in teaching students because they receive less government subsidies.
“The result is that higher education is rapidly losing its role as a social leveler in China and as a safety valve for talented but poor youths to escape poverty,” according to the New York Times.
Ministry of Education’s proposed solution
China’s Ministry of Education disclosed plans to phase out majors that are not producing employment results, according to Wall Street Journal. The education ministry intends to assess college majors by their employment rates and slash numbers in courses where the graduate employment rate dropped below 60 percent for two consecutive years.
The growing numbers of the Ant Tribe even drew the attention of China’s new president. In May, President Xi Jinping encouraged new college graduates in the port city of Tianjin to undertake the most grassroots jobs and “issue extraordinary performances in ordinary job situations,” according to Time.
With China’s economy decelerating, these measures may be too late for the seven million that are graduating this year.
“I want to get a job, but the reality is that I do not know where I can find one,” said Sam Gu. The new college graduate told Time: “As far as I know, none of my 45 classmates has found a job. This is so frustrating.”
– Flora Khoo
Source: Huffington Post, Reuters, CS Monitor, Fox News, New York Times, Aljazeera,Wall Street Journal, Time
Photo: Chicago Tribune