Friday, December 3, 2010

What Is a College Degree Worth in China?

A job fair for college graduates in Hefei, China. Photo New York Times.
An interesting New York Times panel discussion about the value of college degrees in China. The article frames the problem in the following terms:

"While China's economy keeps growing at a rapid pace, the dim employment prospects of many of its college graduates pose a potential economic problem.

According to recent statistics, the average Chinese college graduate makes only 300 yuan, or about $44, more a month than the average Chinese migrant worker. In recent years, the wages of college graduates have remained steady at about 1,500 yuan a month. Migrant workers' wages, however, have risen to 1,200 yuan.

If China's graduates are unable to capitalize on their costly investment in education, then is it worthwhile for students to obtain a college degree? What does the imbalance say about China's education system and its economy in general?"

We're hitting here one of the classical choke points of capitalism: surplus-value has to be extracted somewhere from workers in order for capitalists to make a profit. Today, that somewhere is China.

As one of the panelists puts it, "Despite all the hoopla that foreign analysts have heaped on China’s growth, the economy remains driven by manual labor, low-cost and low-margin manufacturing. (...) Knowledge production requires an elite but an extraordinarily small number of workers. As a result, it cannot absorb many college graduates." The room for a Chinese middle class is thus extremely narrow, hence the chronic oversupply of worthless college degrees.

China's way out of this contradiction (within the limits of capitalism, that is) is to build its own economic empire, i.e. export its manufacturing jobs to undeveloped regions such as Africa, keep its "command and control" jobs in China, and have its own middle class live off the exploitation of Africa's manual labor, as the U.S. and Europe have done for the past century throughout the world. Until the next crisis of overproduction. Meanwhile, entire generations of Chinese college graduates are condemned to fight over the few qualified jobs available in their country - thousands of applicants for every job, it is said.