Shifting aspirations and social reproduction of secondary vocational school students in China

  • Liqi Hou

Student thesis: PhD


In recent years, the Chinese government has vigorously promoted the development of vocational education in an effort to produce a large number of highly skilled workers and thereby improve employment, enhance educational equity, and support the transformation of the country's industrial structure. Rural youths and their families expect vocational education may also help enhance their social status. However, most rural secondary vocational school students continue to enter the service and manufacturing industry after graduation, adding to a low-end labour force. Why does vocational education, which is intended to help students achieve upward social mobility, fail to do so? What are the processes and mechanisms behind this social phenomenon? What is the role of students' agency, especially their aspirations, in the process of social reproduction?
Guided by MacLeod's and Zipin's theories, I conducted 4 months of ethnographic fieldwork in a secondary vocational school in Yunnan Province in order to explore students' lived experiences and any changes in students' aspiration due to school practices. Through participant observation, in-depth interview, and documentary data, I focused on how rural students navigate the meritocratic educational system, exploitative labour regime, and rural-urban divide.
My findings revealed that students had three main aspirations in the early stages of entering vocational school: students hoped to gain a higher academic credential, to learn skills, and to obtain opportunities to work in big cities. However, these aspirations underwent changes during vocational schooling. Regarding the first aspiration, students' experiences in internships made them aware of the limitations of their vocational education credentials. Under the influence of achievement ideology, students tended to blame themselves for their limited personal development and assumed there must be other ways to achieve success. Instead of aspiring to gain a higher academic credential, students began to aspire to obtain any seemingly useful qualifications that would allow them to make money as soon as possible. While showing some resistance, they remained optimistic about their future. Second, influenced by growth ideology, students' aspiration to learn skills also changed. Students came to believe that through vocational education they learned zuoren, or improved their interpersonal skills and accumulated work and life experiences, which was regarded as helpful for obtaining and succeeding in future jobs. Students learned the importance of enduring hardship and failure, and thus they began to accept the reality of building a career. Third, students did maintain their aspiration to find opportunities in big cities rather than in their hometown; in short, students consistently aspired to find a better life elsewhere. Achievement ideology and growth ideology blurred the boundaries between success and failure, current reality and future expectations, and prompted students to accept the uncertainty of life caused by structural deprivation. Accordingly, students constantly adjusted their aspirations to obtain self-consistency.
The study illustrates the proclivities, expressions, and practices of students in vocational education. On the one hand, students actively sought ways out of their current realities while flexibly adjusting their strategies and aspirations to cope within a social structure with extremely limited opportunities; on the other hand, under the influence of mainstream ideologies, students consistently failed to grasp the causes of individual plights, which diminished their ability to process their discontent and suppressed their resistance. By exploring the content, characteristics, and influencing factors of students' aspirations, the thesis argues that structural determinants reproduce the social inequality in this disadvantaged population specifically by shaping students' aspirations - and more importantly, students' capacity to aspire.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorJenny Chan (Supervisor) & Ching Hua Anita Koo (Supervisor)

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