Everybody educated? Education migrants and rural-urban relations in Hubei province, China

Willy Sier 1

Willy SierUniversity of Amsterdam

This anthropological research, based on one year of fieldwork in Hubei province (2015-2016), focuses on the contradictory experiences of ‘education migrants’, which are the growing number of Chinese rural youth who migrate to the city via the country’s higher education system. These youth’ enrolment in universities has been an important contributing factor to the rapid expansion of the Chinese higher education system since 1998. Yet their limited access to high-quality education within this higher education system results in the reproduction of rural-urban inequalities in the urban Chinese labour market, where education migrants largely work under precarious conditions in informal, white-collar jobs.

The rapid growth of China’s education system is often celebrated as an ‘educational miracle’ that promises further economic growth and development as well as the mitigation of rural-urban inequalities in Chinese society. My work critiques the idea of education as a unequivocally positive force that has the potential to alleviate social problems ranging from poverty to gender inequality, and demonstrates that the blind pursuit of low-quality education sometimes makes for a wasteful journey with disappointing results. It shows that education migrants’ access to higher education is largely restricted to universities in the bottom segment of the highly stratified Chinese higher education system. The university degrees that youth obtain in these universities translate into poorly paid and unstable jobs that do not enable education migrants to achieve their main goals: building up stable lives in the cities and providing support for their family members.

This project is interested in the linkages between processes of educational expansion and urbanisation. It therefore studies the experiences of education migrants in the context of China’s rural-urban transition, and views educational expansion as an important tool for achieving state urbanisation goals as well as preparing rural communities for “agricultural modernisation”, the term the Chinese government uses to refer to processes of scaling up through land consolidation. In addition to a book manuscript under preparation, the first results of this project are expected to come out in the form of academic articles.

The first article, called ‘The price of aspirations: education migrants’ pursuit of a new stability through higher education in Hubei province, China’, brings an analysis of the structural condition of China’s social transformation and higher education system into dialogue with a discussion about the goals Chinese rural youth aspire to achieve. It analyses in detail how one families’ choices in relation to their children’s education are rooted in changing land policies and how students’ rural status inhibits their success within the Chinese higher education system. It also presents research data gathered among rural high school students that shows how students’ awareness of the challenges faced by their parents shapes their motivations.

The second article, ‘Daughters’ dilemmas: university-educated women in the rural Chinese household in Hubei province, China’, looks at education migrants’ experiences through a gendered lens and demonstrates in which ways the increased participation of rural women in higher education changes the role of rural daughters in the household. The cases presented in this paper show that highly educated women struggle to use their newly gained status as university graduates for the betterment of their families’ situations and their own position in the city without hurting their position on the marriage market, where they might be perceived as a ‘hero women’ who prioritise career over family

Author Bio

Willy Sier is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her PhD-research focused on rural university students in Wuhan and the role of China’s higher education system in the country’s rural-urban transformation. Currently, she works on a project on whiteness in China (https://www.china-white.org). To see her in action, please see her short film “Empty Home”: https://vimeo.com/209590747. She can be contacted at w.m.sier@uva.nl and she tweets @WillySier.

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