Everything about China and it's culture

Everything about China and it's culture

“Ant tribe” university graduates find degrees are nearly worthless

Liu Yang, a coal miner’s daughter, arrived in Beijing this summer with a degree from Datong University, the equivalent of about £90 in her wallet and an air of invincibility.

Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a tumbledown neighbourhood not far from the Olympic Village where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room.

Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of buildings, Ms Liu scowled as the smell of rubbish wafted up around her. "Beijing isn’t like this in the movies," she said.

Often the first from their families to go to university, graduates like Ms Liu are part of an unprecedented wave of young people all around China who were supposed to move the country’s labour-dependent economy toward a white-collar future. In 1998, when then president Jiang Zemin announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities produced 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults.

"College essentially provided them with nothing," said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system. "For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability."

In a kind of cruel reversal, China’s old migrant class – uneducated villagers who flocked to factory towns to make goods for export – are now in high demand, with spot labour shortages driving up wages.

But the supply of those trained in accounting, finance and computer programming now seems limitless, and their value has plunged. Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for migrant labourers grew by nearly 80 per cent; during the same period, starting pay for graduates stayed the same.

China: Tough times are no deterrent

Chinese sociologists have created a term for educated young people like Ms Liu who move in search of work: the ant tribe. It is a reference to their immense numbers – at least 100,000 in Beijing alone – and to the fact that they often settle in crowded neighbourhoods, toiling for wages that would give even low-paid factory workers pause.

"Like ants, they gather in colonies, sometimes underground in basements, and work long and hard," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

The central government, well aware of the risks of inequitable growth, has been trying to channel more development to inland regions like Shanxi, Ms Liu’s home province.

But despite government efforts, urban residents earned on average 3.3 timesmore last year than those living in the countryside. Such disparities – and the lure of spectacular wealth in coastal cities like Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenzhen – keep young graduates on the move.

"China has really improved the quality of its workforce, but on the other hand competition has never been more serious," said Peng Xizhe, dean of social development and public policy at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Given the glut of graduates, Mr Peng suggested that young people either shift to more practical vocations like nursing and teaching or recalibrated their expectations in order to get decent jobs. "It’s OK if they want to try a few years seeking their fortune, but if they stay too long in places like Beijing or Shanghai, they will find trouble for themselves and trouble for society."

A fellow Datong University graduate, Yuan Lei, threw the first wet blanket over the exuberance of Ms Liu and her friends not long after their July arrival in Beijing. Mr Yuan had arrived several months earlier for an internship but was still jobless.

"If you’re not the son of an official or you don’t come from money, life is going to be bitter," he said over bowls of noodles, their first meal in the capital.

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