Constructing false consciousness: Vocational college students’ aspirations and agency in China

Research Highlighted:

Geng Wang & Lesley Doyle (2020): Constructing false consciousness: vocational college students’ aspirations and agency in China, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 1-18. DOI: 10.1080/13636820.2020.1829008

Read about Dr Wang’s other article here.

Dr Geng Wang, Tianjin University, China


Individual academic achievement is highly valued in Chinese society, with vocational education students positioned at the bottom of the educational hierarchy and suffering considerable societal prejudice. In this paper we present new findings from the choice-making experiences of students in two vocational education colleges in China, how they are perceived by their teachers, and how, in the context of their negatively-stereotyped status, they perceive themselves. Drawing on the Marxist notion of false consciousness to help understand the agency of these students, we found that almost all perceived themselves as being agentic and having control over their destiny. They felt they only had themselves to blame for the stereotyping to which they were subjected. One student had not adopted this mindset and was critical of the exam system. We argue that the perceived agency of the majority of the students resonates strongly with the neoliberal values which are associated with responsibilisation, and which have been encouraged in China since the 1970s with the beginning of the Reform Era. The evidence from our study also suggests, however, that it is possible for young people, by their own efforts, to move away from the state of false consciousness.


In this paper, we focus on vocational education college students. We present new findings from interviews and focus groups with a sample of these students and their teachers and locate the findings within the debate on the concept of ‘youth agency’. The paper seeks theoretical purchase on the ‘agency’ of Chinese VET students through an innovative exploration of the Marxist notion of ‘false consciousness’.

Theoretical framework

Michael Apple, in Ideology and Curriculum, has been examining why Marxist understanding has not been more impactful in Anglo-Western educational investigation (Apple 2019, 135). He argues that the neglect of this scholarly tradition says more about the fear-laden past of society than it does about the merits of the (all too often unexplored) tradition, which indicates it is difficult ‘for there to be acceptance of a position which holds that most social and intellectual categories are themselves valuative in nature and may reflect ideological commitments’ (136). Apple argues that the Marxist tradition illuminates the tendencies for unwarranted and often unconscious domination, alienation and repression within educational institutions and promotes conscious individual and collective emancipatory activity (137). The Marxist tradition also has the potential to connect the students’ perspectives with White and Wyn’s (1998) ‘existing social relations’ (referred to above), and to locate them within a broad political economy approach. We concur with Sukarieh and Tannock (2015) who argue that ‘to understand the significance of youth in global society, it is … necessary to look well beyond youth and young people in and of themselves’ (4). Most significantly, we argue that the concept of false consciousness carries with it the assumption that it is possible for young people to think their way out of their predicament.


The findings of the study suggest that vocational colleges or programmes were chosen by students as the last resort or ‘leftover option’ in a bid to obtain an educational credential. The students’ lower test scores in the College Entrance Exam (CEE) had automatically limited their capacity to be ‘free choosers’. Nearly all of those in the student sample, and all in the teacher sample regarded the CEE exam as efficient in what they saw as weeding out weak students. To most of the students, ‘it (the exam system) is pretty fair’. The students’ sense of personal failure and inadequacy is echoed by the teachers stereotyping of them as unmotivated students with a habit of ‘slacking off’, or ‘bad seeds’, from which nothing worthwhile can grow, or poor learners who never ‘get’ the textbook. Rather than having an ‘agentic’ feeling, the vocational students felt fatalistic or powerless when they were ‘dropped down’ and had to relegate themselves to vocational colleges or forego the opportunity of going to college at all.

Discussion and Conclusion

We conclude that the young people’s interpretations of their situation – that it is their personal failure in not achieving better test scores (which they associate with ensuring a better life) are evidence of false consciousness, as conceived by Engels (1893) and Marx and Engels (1846). The young people have formed false perceptions of their own agency in the belief that they have the power to control their own achievement level and, through this, that they have freedom of choice to determine their own futures. The current exam system has secured active collusion from these vocational students at the same time as it generates the poor outcomes. The students are under the impression that they only have themselves to blame and they should take responsibility their own misfortune. This perceived sense of ‘agency’ – in the sense we understand here as control of one’s own destiny along with the sense of personal responsibility for making choices – is, we argue, created by false consciousness which helps to sustain the hegemonic control neoliberal economies need to survive. The perspective of Jia, as the only exception who did not accept the unified ‘false’ discourse, offers evidence that young people can have the capability to move away from the state of false consciousness. We conclude that the concept of false consciousness provides the opportunity for a critical turn in understanding agency, which for too long has been used in the drive to find some form of self-driven personal empowerment in young people, even when the evidence for it is thin. False consciousness offers a different theoretical perspective within the educational community, which can, as Apple (2019) explains: ‘contribute to the creation of alternative programmes of research and development that challenge the commonsense assumptions that underpin the field’ (Apple 2019). We suggest that this theoretical perspective could further improve our understanding of youth decision-making outside of VET and in countries other than China.

Author bio:

Dr Geng Wang currently works as a researcher at School of Education, Tianjin University, China. She is also a member of Tianjin Institute for Emerging Engineering Education. She holds a PhD (University of Glasgow) in education. Her research interests revolve around education and work transitions through the lifecourse, particularly in relation to vocational education and training for young people, what influences transitions and their impact on learning and development. She can be contacted via

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