Educational (in)Equality and Social Justice was the title of the second in a collaborative series of webinars exploring the development of education in East Asia. Each webinar features presentations by faculty from the University of Bath, Lingnan University and Durham University, and discussions on potential new joint research projects arising from the knowledge shared.
COVID and the prognosis for graduate employment in China
In her address, Professor Andrea Abbas of the University of Bath examined the role of theorised methodologies in tackling global inequalities. To do this, she drew on a body of research that suggests that when Western and Southern scholars collaborate, the process can be detrimental to the interests of the non-Western scholars. This is because there are ideas and practices implicit in accepted Western methodologies that can fail to prioritise the needs of non-Westerners.
By way of example, Prof Abbas highlighted a collaborative research project, on educational inequalities and inclusive education in South West China, which she had worked on. A large EU-funded project had successfully led to the creation and evaluation of four masters courses focusing on inclusive education for South West China. However, further cycles of research showed the process by which knowledge was being built was clearly unsatisfactory.
Prof Abba cited the work of McMahon and Milligan on ethical research in international comparative education. “They talk about transparency and honesty, for example. This asks you to engage in conversations, from the outset, about the purpose of research, why it's important, how it’s going to be used and how you can be honest about the use of the data.”
She said there was a need to decolonise inclusive education. “All the decisions made in relation to inclusive education, and all the policy work that is being done by organisations like UNESCO, have involved Western researchers.”
With a growing body of literature highlighting the damage, and the destructive dominance, suffered by the cultures of disadvantaged groups across the world, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, Prof Abbas called for the Bath-Lingnan-Durham network to collaborate on the development of more socially just methodologies. She went on to suggest that the interdisciplinary framework proposed by critical realist Professor Berth Danermark could be adapted for international transdisciplinarity, with a key creative phase of epistemic emergence, involving the integration of knowledge, central to the process.
Can education alone transform the prospects of China’s migrant worker children?
Due to rapid urbanisation and the relaxation of government policy, the number of rural migrant workers in China had grown to over 285 million by 2017. While, by 2015, the number of children who had travelled with them was estimated at over 34 million.
In her presentation, titled Class Consciousness of Chinese Rural Migrant Children and the Influence of Educational Meritocracy in Schooling, Dr Jiaxin Chen of Lingnan University, looked at the reasons why the majority of these children are resigned to facing similarly difficult working lives as their parents. Their parents are likely to endure limited labour protection, long hours, subsistence-level wages, and harsh conditions.
Previous research around the construction of class consciousness has argued this begins at an early age. As the child grows, they come to associate social stratification and economic inequality with personal traits, such as education, ability and effort. Such false consciousness can be contrasted with critical consciousness, Dr Chen explained. This outlines an alternative development path for the young people, that grows from an awareness of the problematic situation, to a sense of social responsibility that can be translated into action, and a belief that the situation can be changed by the exercise of collective power.
In her project, Dr Chen conducted qualitative investigations with 87 fifth- and sixth-grade migrant children in two primary schools in Beijing. “Although these rural migrant children have an awareness of inequality they have not yet developed a critical consciousness,” she found. Their interpretations of the unequal class relationships and the class-based injustices suffered by migrant workers exhibit false consciousness. “The majority of the students understood the inferior position of the workers was due to their earlier educational failures.”
In addition, teachers in the two case schools were all committed to the ideology that education changes destiny and students are responsible for their own academic results.
“Therefore it’s very difficult to transfer the students’ awareness into the transformative resistance action in the schooling process,” Dr Chen concluded.
Impact of the switch to online learning on international students experiences
Underlying the initial response of universities to the COVID-19 pandemic was a need to maintain financial viability, explained Dr Cristina Costa of Durham University’s School of Education, at the start of her presentation. Less evident was an emphasis on maintaining international students’ university-wide experience or investigating the impact the changes were having on them.
In her contribution to the webinar, Dr Costa presented the preliminary findings from an ongoing project, titled From On-campus to Online: International Students Returning to Academia in the Context of COVID-19, she is working on with Dr Huaping Li of Shanghai Normal University. The pair are using a qualitative approach anchored by a narrative perspective as, Dr Costa pointed out, “we wanted the students’ voices to come to the fore.”
For the first phase of the study, which is now coming to an end, 20 students were recruited and asked to keep online diaries for three months. The diary entries reveal that some students who had to return to their home countries, found a lack of sensitivity to issues such as time-zone differences. While those whose programmes should have had a central practical element, were also left frustrated. But others enjoyed online classes, as they were less nervous about asking questions remotely, or because they found the flexibility of recorded lectures helpful.
However, for most, enthusiasm waned. “Universities are focusing on content, not context and not experience,” Dr Costa noted. Along with a sense of missing out on memorable social experiences and the chance to build relationships, the diarists’ entries revealed growing levels of stress and anxiety over their academic schedules and workload, feelings of hopelessness, an absence of inspiration, and financial concerns.
In the further stages of their project, Dr Costa and Dr Li will be asking the students what changes they would like to see their universities make.