It’s the summer of 2018 and Paddy’s Irish pub - opposite the Australian embassy in Beijing - is host to a small gathering. A Cambridge, Oxford and Warwick graduate are meeting for a Guinness and a moan. In the background, two Russians and an American are doing a standup bit (in English) about the dangers of protest in Putin’s federation. ‘At least,’ comes the punchline, ‘there are protests in Moscow.’ Paddy’s is Beijing’s premier hangout for the ‘jaded foreign teacher’ - a local speciality - replete with full English breakfasts, a curry house and all the sports bar atmosphere an expatriated delivery driver for the ABCs could ever get nostalgic about.
In Beijing, if you look foreign and understand English beyond ‘he, she and it,’ you can pick up work like pennies from the pavement. Some of these pennies buy you first class tickets to bespoke classrooms, interested pupils and reasonable rewards. If you really plug away in your plush carriage, it can often get even better. Folks have been known to get their rent covered, extended holidays, fatter stacks of cash to fritter away on quiz night, etc. There are other pennies, however, that lead to 1-2-1 English in Sanyuanqiao. Opposite the babywear and just along from the cinema playing digital cartoons from 2002, 1-2-1 is the ‘education department’ of the Qimeng ‘kid’s mall’. Its clientbase are between two and five years old, its faculty comprise a gang of ex-drug dealers from Wolverhampton and its only reason for existence is to shake the magic money tree of English education in China. Walking along its lino halls after closing time, you might wander past ‘Ez V’ (the teaching staff’s South African contingent) wheeling back and forth on a push car, tempting university students from outside Beijing to move there as part of his real estate scam. If questioned, he’ll flash a gold-toothed grin in your general direction. 1-2-1 is the antithesis of education. It’s here that the Cambridge graduate works.
‘My fucking boss…’ she begins. Grumbles and sips of Guinness fly around the table like a Mexican wave.
‘My fucking curriculum!’
‘Damn right! Fuck ‘em!’
These are the cries of the overqualified. Beijing is a spider’s web for the university graduate flying about jobless and confused. From all across the world they pour in - wings beating and diplomas clutched to their chests. The performing arts students, the history kids, the English majors. All proffer the middle classes’ favourite excuse for wasting time: they’re here to learn about themselves and get some exposure to ‘the real world.’
In reality, they’re here for the money and consistent employment. Salaries can be generous in a world of cheap food, cheap beer and untaxed cigarettes. Often, teachers from ‘desirable’ countries like the UK and US can expect to make twice the monthly salary of a local postgrad.
The sheer prevalence of diploma-wielding foreign jobseekers throughout China speaks to a great crisis in the value of degrees across the globe. As western economies have transitioned into the service sector, young people are left without the liberty to choose apprenticeships or other traditional career access paths. So, funnelled into university, students spend years and a small fortune earning degrees often entirely unrelated to any field beyond academia. On graduation, professional employment eludes many - especially humanities graduates. According to DLHE data for 2016/17, only 63.7% of UK humanities students found employment within six months, while 19.2% of English and 18.5% of History grads with jobs were working as retail, catering, wait and bar staff. Equally, official numbers for graduate employment on university websites can be misleading. The UCL history department give a figure of 82.2% for students in graduate-level work or study within six months, but they contract the figure into one number that comprises both work and study. This reduces information transparency and (whether intentionally or not) may create false or inflated expectations in the mind of a prospective student. Though an overwhelming majority of new jobs expected to appear in the coming decade will require an undergraduate degree, most of those new jobs will be in technology and medicine.
Not to mention the fact that my friend sat down to bemoan her boss in Paddy’s long before the Coronavirus crisis struck. As the furlough scheme comes to an end, optimistic estimates suggest a peak for UK unemployment at 9.7% later this year - others predict 13% or more by the middle of 2021. With much of Asia closed to travel, a jobless graduate won’t even be able to pick up a 1-2-1 penny (and all day have dubious luck). This implies either an increase in the number of graduates searching for domestic jobs or - as many predict - a great surge in masters hopefuls. With such universally dismal job prospects across the country, it’s hardly a stretch to imagine undergraduates pinning hopes on further study. In a year’s time, the “postgraduate year” will return to the job market only to find it awash with two-a-penny copies of their new, hard-earned certification.
Back in Paddy’s, the brave few foreign faces who didn’t flee, passport between their legs, at the beginning of the pandemic are feeling better over their Guinness and grumbling. Almost all schools have resumed face-to-face teaching and the money is as good as it ever was. Grinning at me across the internet, a Serbian friend in Chongqing relates: ‘everyone said to get out! Look at them all now, trying to get back in.’ She completed a prestigious STEM masters in 2014 and followed it with a year in an industry graduate programme. Failing to find any work after the entire ordeal, she moved to southern China for a job teaching English drama. Now making considerably more than any of her unemployed friends back home, she’s holding the first class ticket for all it’s worth. None of China’s well-salaried teaching positions offer anything in the way of career progression, but for many, a paid-for existence pays for itself. To quote my friend: ‘there’s no “up” from here, but there’s only “down” if I leave.’