I recently came across this documentary called “Education, Education” (released a year ago but new to me) exploring the hardship young Chinese are facing in leveraging their education for a decent job. It follows a college graduate struggling to find work, a poor rural girl deciding what she should do after failing the gaokao, and a recruiter touting a sham private college.
The film was advertised with the question, “Has higher education become a cause of poverty rather than a route out of it?” This, I think, is a depressingly relevant question to be asking in China today.
I’ve often said that what the country needs perhaps more than anything is education – the kind that opens minds and sparks a desperately needed innovative spirit. Unfortunately, what it more often provides is “education” – the kind that puts teachers at the front of classrooms but does little other than waste students’ time and embed them with a sense of entitlement.
The film’s depiction of the two students is compelling, but the sham agent is what really grabbed my attention. The man travelled from city-to-city giving talks to students who failed the gaokao, trying to convince them to attend the expensive “private college” he works for.
He gives inspiring speeches and rattles off quotes like “Learning is the noblest of all pursuits in life.” He’s actually preaching to the parents in the room, who’ve been taught their whole lives (and often seen firsthand) that a college degree can change a poor peasant’s fate.
Between speeches, the man explains to the filmmaker how he’s scamming them. He pulls up the PowerPoint presentation he uses to show pictures of the campus’s libraries, conference halls, labs and auditorium. “None of them exist,” he said. “Just images from the Internet. 90 percent of the tutors have no teaching qualifications or experience.”
He goes on to coldly describe how much the scam hurts its victims. “With the minimum monthly wage of 1,200 yuan and spending nothing, it would take five years for a student to pay back their debts. Look at me, I’m a qualified graphic designer but have to travel around selling a scam. What hope is there for the kids that I recruit?”
At first I couldn’t believe that he would admit these things on camera with his face shown, but it dawned on me that he was probably doing it out of guilt as a sort of atonement. “Nobody can do this for a long time, everyone wants to quit,” he said near the end of the film. “[The families] are so poor. Giving money to [our school]? What the hell? Where’s our conscience?”
Earlier this year I spoke to a group of young students from rural Henan who’d been lured into a nearly identical scam hundreds of miles from home. After they failed the gaokao, they were called by a recruiter to attend the inspirational pitch. They were incredibly poor, and thought some kind of education was the only way to change their family’s status. So they paid 10,000 yuan – nearly all the money their parents had saved – just for the first year at the “college.” They planned to borrow from other family and friends for the subsequent three years.
In villages like theirs, everyone knows one-another so few would dare try to swindle others. “People in the countryside are very honest,” one of the young men told me. “So we had no sense of law.”
The recruiter from the film acknowledged how he preyed on this naiveté. “The more simple they are, the more likely they are to be fooled by us,” he said. “The clever ones don’t fall for it so easily.”
Like the school from the film, the fake college that the Henan men attended eventually folded and the ringleader disappeared with all of their money. It stole a year of their lives and left them 10,000 yuan poorer with nothing to show for it but a keen sense of disillusionment. “The only thing I learned at that school was not to trust anybody,” one of them said. “I got hurt badly. My first contact with society was full of lies.”
It had happened three years prior to when I spoke to them, but they’d all been too ashamed to ever tell their parents.
Most stayed in the city, some toiling at low-end labor jobs as they kept studying for the gaokao hoping they’d eventually pass and skirt having to tell their families anything (one man had already failed three times).
Education scams like these have become ubiquitous in China. Earlier this year it was revealed that there were at least 70 of them operating just in Beijing. They prey on the sense that any “education” is better than nothing and can provide some social mobility. They prey on the desperation of those who can least afford it.
I had to wonder though, would the young men really have been any better off had they scored a few points higher on the gaokao and been admitted to a low-tier college? About one-fourth of those who graduate now are still jobless a year later.
A few months later I met a man who’d graduated from a second-tier provincial university with a degree in Chinese in 2009. He’d spent the following three years hopping across the country working in factories and grocery stores as he struggled to find white collar work. It wasn’t until after he cut his losses and paid 10,000 yuan for a four-month computer programming course that he found a decent-paying job in an office.
I suggested to one of the Henan men that perhaps he’d be better off cutting his losses and attending a shorter term technical school, since that’s where the most demand in China is. However, that just didn’t have the same appeal. “I thought about going to technical school when my college went bust,” he replied. “But my classmates criticized me. They said, ‘your parents saved for you to go to college. How could you use their money for technical school?’”