Postdoctoral Research Project - Dr. Charles Walker
‘Social inequalities in emerging education and labour markets: young people and vocationalism in Russia and Lithuania’
This project is a qualitative sociological investigation into the ways in which young people graduating from initial vocational education (IVET) colleges in Russia and Lithuania negotiate transitions into working lives, and the processes of social stratification which underpin, and are reproduced through, these transitions.
By tracking young people out of academic education and into low skilled jobs, vocational education has traditionally been associated with social disadvantage and the reproduction of social inequalities. Indeed, while vocational policies and systems have always been constructed around economic imperatives, they have also acted as a universal solution to the problems ‘non-academic’ youth has tended to pose within secondary education systems. The tendency of vocational education to ‘freeze’ existing divisions of labour (along the lines not only of class, but also of ethnicity and gender) was equally evident in the Soviet Union, in which IVET colleges (Profuchilishcha or PTU) provided a state-sponsored route into agricultural and industrial enterprises. PTU always had the reputation of being a dead-end, last choice route which only ever attracted the ‘least able’ and ‘least disciplined’ students, and overwhelmingly recruited young people from blue-collar and agricultural backgrounds. In the post-Soviet period, the traditional inequalities embedded through the vocational education system have been compounded by the catastrophic collapse experienced in those sectors of the economy for which its graduates are trained, which has severely affected both the availability of jobs for IVET graduates and the nature of the jobs they are able to access.
While inheriting similar starting points in terms of educational and economic infrastructures, the two countries on which the research focuses present divergent prospects for young people graduating from IVET colleges, reflecting key aspects of their economic development in the post-Soviet period. In Russia, the IVET sector has to a large extent focused on attempting to channel young people into large-scale state and former state enterprises, in which wage non-payment and poor working conditions have often rendered their prospects vastly impoverished. In Lithuania, on the other hand, IVET provision has combined its traditional focus on industrial training with a shift towards the now dominant service sectors of the economy. At the same time, however, while IVET graduates in Russia often face ‘hidden’ forms of unemployment, in Lithuania they are highly represented amongst the significant proportion of young people who are unable to obtain formal employment of any kind.
In adopting a qualitative, micro-sociological approach, the research aims to establish the active ways in which young people graduating from the two vocational systems respond to the different sets of opportunities they face in emerging labour market and educational structures. The research explores both the extent to which young people utilise institutional provisions in making educational and labour market transitions, and the ways in which they are able to draw upon differential sets of individual level resources (of material and social capital, for example) in the navigation of these transitions. Within this exploration, the research focuses on classed, gendered and ethnic dimensions of labour market and educational disadvantage, and the ways these are reproduced both through objective opportunity structures and subjectivities rooted in aspects of social and cultural identity. Of particular interest are the respondents’ experiences in the further and higher education systems, which have become increasingly accessible to graduates of IVET colleges in recent years, both in Russia and in Lithuania. Growing higher education participation rates amongst vocational graduates indicate that a dominant response to poor prospects in the labour market has been to pursue further educational qualifications. However, as in Western European countries, little is known about the experiences of ‘non-traditional learners’ making transitions through tertiary education, nor the outcomes of such transitions. In exploring the respondents’ transitions into working lives, the research will move away from the traditional focus of such studies on a straightforward school-to-work transition, instead exploring how different aspects of the wider transition to adulthood – in household and family formation, for example – form part of the wider context in which young people’s life chances are defined. On a broader theoretical level, the research will be situated within current debates regarding the individualisation and destandardisation of the life course, assessing both the extent to which these processes are applicable in the institutional and cultural contexts examined in the study, and the ways in which they engender new opportunities and new risks for different social groups.
The findings of the research will be disseminated at a number of conferences over the course of the fellowship. These will include major conferences within the region (the Baltic Readings Conference, for example) as well as sociological and REES conferences in the United Kingdom. Research findings will also be disseminated through a range of publications. Journals to be targeted will be both disciplinary and area studies based. With regard to the former, the Journal of Youth Studies or Work, Employment and Society would be first choice outlets through which to illustrate the capacity of area studies research to feed back into contemporary sociological debates. In addition to this, the Journal of Baltic Studies or Europe-Asia Studies would be ideal publications for articles providing more detailed expositions of transformations taking place in the region (in the education and labour markets for example), and the wider significance of this for the region as a whole. Alongside these scholarly publications, more policy-focused reports and articles will be produced which would be more directly beneficial to a number of interested parties in the region. In Russia, this will include the journal Professional’noe Obrazovanie, which is published monthly by the Institute for the Development of Vocational Education in Moscow, and is read widely by directors and teachers at vocational schools throughout the country. Similar publications will be sought in Lithuania through the Ministry of Education and Science, and contact established with the Lithuanian Youth Council. European and International bodies such as the European Youth Council and the UN Youth Unit would also be potential collaborators and beneficiaries.
CEELBAS is a partnership of the Universities of Bath, Birmingham, Cambridge, Kent, Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield, Warwick and SOAS and UCL
- New Global Europe Centre launched at the University of Kent
- Language-Based Area Studies Reception at the British Academy, 13 May
- Frontlines: Politics and Culture in the post-Soviet Space. New CEELBAS debate series with openDemocracy Russia
- CRCEES Postgraduate Research Methodology Summer School, 4 - 14 July, Krakow: places available for CEELBAS university postgraduates