Making choices? The lives of vocational college students in China

Wang, Geng (2020) Making choices? The lives of vocational college students in China. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Vocational education in China is failing to meet the need for upskilling its workforce to support the country’s rapid industrial growth and this is impeding its ability to compete (Stewart, 2015). Recent policy changes to address this problem reflect government concerns (State Council, 2019a; 2019b). Since the start of the Reform Era in 1978, vocational education has been politically and financially neglected in favour of university expansion (Klorer and Stepan, 2015, p. 4). In China, vocational education is seen as inferior to academic routes (Yang, 2004; Zha, 2011) and positioned at the bottom of the educational hierarchy (Mok, 2001, Stewart, 2015). Vocational students are stereotyped as ‘stupid and lazy’ and suffer considerable prejudice in Chinese society (Woronov, 2015). Drawing on both quantitative and qualitative data, this study investigates the lived experiences of vocational youth in China, their capacity for individual choice, and their aspirations. The primary research question for this project is: How are young people in China exercising “personal agency” in their educational and career choices within the existing social and educational structure?

The quantitative data for this study comes from the responses to a small-scale questionnaire survey of vocational education students in two colleges in northern China. The qualitative data was gathered through 8 focus group and 18 interview sessions conducted in these two colleges. Additional interviews were also carried out with four teaching staff. Data was gathered on the students’ choice-making processes, their opinions of their current vocational colleges and programmes, their perceptions of future employment opportunities, and their thoughts on the prevalent stereotyping against them. The findings are analysed and discussed utilising a theoretical framework which draws on three lenses: the individualisation thesis, a Foucauldian perspective, and Marxist political economy. Each with its own unique theoretical attributes, the lenses are utilised to make sense of the findings and inform our understanding of the relationship between personal choice-making and structural pressures within the context of the neoliberal influences on China since the end of the 1970s.

The findings reveal that for vocational youth, individual agency has been manufactured and governed with the aid of the mechanisms of examinations and performativity to produce neoliberal subjects. “Choosing” to attend vocational colleges on leaving secondary education can be regarded as a passive response to the increasing demand for educational credentials in China’s Reform Era. Once at the colleges, the students received only fragmented skills training and lacked the confidence and skills readiness to envisage long-term career progression. They were further burdened with the “vocational student” label, which is of itself pejorative, and serves to remind them it is their own failure that renders them unable to gain any sense of worth. This group of young people are managed through a meritocratic system which only values academic routes. The agency of the vocational students—their capacity to make choices and take responsibility—has been constructed and managed to meet the needs of the neoliberal market and China’s export-oriented economy. The Chinese government has been strengthening the focus on vocational education over the past few years to meet a different need now which is to upskill the workforce (State Council, 2017). There is a dissonance between this goal and the neoliberal effects of the Reform Era which has produced vocational students not valued by society and lacking in self-worth.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Vocational education, China, agency.
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Education
Supervisor's Name: Doyle, Dr. Lesley and Lally, Professor Vic
Date of Award: 2020
Depositing User: Ms Geng Wang
Unique ID: glathesis:2020-79027
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 18 Feb 2020 10:55
Last Modified: 07 Oct 2022 08:21
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.79027

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