East Asian issues shaping the new geopolitics
The phenomenal rise of countries in East Asia has brought a fast-changing social and economic environment which affords many new areas for the academic community to probe and investigate.
That was ably demonstrated during the fourth event in Lingnan University’s China and Regional Studies Joint Webinar Series with the University of Turku, which featured instructive talks on contrasting topics, both with important longer-term implications.
The subject for Professor Joshua Mok Ka Ho, Vice President of Lingnan University and Lam Man Tsan Chair Professor of Comparative Policy, was the massification and privatisation of higher education in East Asia.
His starting premise was that the significant increase in enrolment at the region’s tertiary-level institutions in the past two decades has led to an oversupply of university graduates for local - and indeed global - labour markets. As a result, many of those graduates have experienced tougher than expected competition in finding the kind of jobs they want and, all too often, have ended up feeling “mismatched” for roles they have been obliged to take.
Mok explained how and why this situation came about. Principally, for a combination of cultural and economic reasons, governments were keen to get more students into higher education. Increased private investment in the field of further education created more courses and places. And the challenges of future graduate employment were, to a large extent, left to market forces and blind trust in continued growth.
However, Mok’s recent study, in collaboration with international colleagues, has raised questions about the concept of human capital theory which underlies this approach. As we can now see, there are clear instances of “overpromising”, since these days individual investment of time and money in higher education does not necessarily guarantee fast-track career development and enhanced social mobility.
In simple terms, the supply of university graduates exceeds the needs of the labour market, even when hoped-for opportunities within the entrepreneurial sector are taken into account.
That, no doubt, is going to have continuing repercussions from sociological and political-economic perspectives in the years ahead.
In particular, Mok noted the issues of intergenerational inequality, “overqualified” graduates facing the prospect of unemployment or underemployment, and more self-reported cases of unhappiness among young people.
“Governments across the globe must critically review the role of higher education and the impact of the process of massification and privatisation on graduate employment in the post-Covid-19 era,” he said. “Young people’s dissatisfaction when faced with intergenerational inequality and injustice is understandable. And these issues are closely connected to the new geopolitics.”
Prior to Mok’s presentation, Suik Jung, a doctoral candidate at the University of Turku’s Centre for East Asian Studies, spoke about his research on the potential effects of social capital on the employment of North Korean refugees in South Korea.
The particular focus of his work is to gain a clearer understanding of how new arrivals cope with the challenges of integrating into an largely unfamiliar society and what support is available to help them with education and training, finding jobs, and dealing with the mental health issues that can easily arise.
Jung noted that South Korea has seen a marked increase in the number of refugees from the North since the mid-1990s. However, studies show that many have failed to integrate well, not holding down steady jobs, despite being eligible for vocational training and various incentives designed to improve their employability.
This suggests that social capital, or the ability to access support and resources via social networks, rather than through government agencies, plays a bigger role than initially assumed in opening doors and enhancing employment outcomes.
There has, though, been comparatively little in-depth research done on how social capital specifically affects North Korean refugees and the extent to which it helps their efforts to become self-supporting and build a new life.
Jung explained his main objectives, methodology, and preliminary insights on preferred ways to achieve faster and more effective integration.
He outlined what South Korea provides in terms of free vocational training, incentives to acquire certificates, career counselling services, and an employment support fund. But official figures for 2020 still point to a continuing disparity, with immigrants from North Korea, working on average longer hours per week for lower salaries and experiencing a significantly higher rate of unemployment at 9.4 per cent. Their prospects are often no brighter than doing manual labour or finding roles in the service sector.
But, Jung noted, social capital - and the positive relationships it entails - plays a fundamental role in improving access to better jobs, higher wages and promotion. He is currently studying how it operates among the North Korean refugee community by means of interviews, questionnaires, online surveys, focus groups, and a framework borrowed from the UK’s Office of National Statistics, which helps to assess social and civic participation, useful contacts, reciprocity and trust.
“It is a systematic approach at an individual and collective level,” he said. “The objective is to improve integration and employment outcomes.”