China’s development needs put vocational education in the spotlight

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Data from the Seventh National Census shows that the total size of China’s working-age population has decreased by 45.24 million, with the proportion of the total population falling from 70.14 percent to 63.35 percent. The economy that once depended on the size of its population for rapid growth and development has gradually transformed to one that relies on highly skilled workers.

According to statistics supplied by the Ministry of Education, as of December 2020, there were a total of 11,500 vocational schools in China, with 28.57 million students enrolled. Data from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security shows that China has over 200 million workers with technical skills, accounting for 26 percent of aggregate employment. Among them, there are 50 million who are considered high-skilled workers, accounting for 28 percent of the technical talent pool. Despite these seemingly impressive figures, a visible gap is still present when China is compared to manufacturing powerhouses such as Japan and Germany.

In the future, China will require more high-skilled technical workers to sustain and accelerate its growth. Yet in spite of the attention devoted to improving vocational education in recent years, the student pool for vocational education remains poor.

At the beginning of this year, Liu Xin chose to drop out after studying for one semester at an intermediate vocational school in Huaihua, Hunan Province. In the high school entrance exams held the previous year, Liu’s score was not high enough to enter a normal high school. In previous years, students like her could attend private high schools as an alternative. But due to the changes in education policy to ensure student enrollment in vocational schools, despite being admitted to a private high school, Liu was later forced to quit and had to enroll in a local vocational school. The incident was far from unique, with nearly 800 students also forced to do the same in Huaihua alone.

Liu’s father told journalists from China Philanthropist magazine that choosing a vocational school was a last resort and that none of the local vocational schools were really ideal. Other parents also agreed, claiming that teaching at the schools was mediocre and those attending would not have good employment prospects.

Professor Shi Weiping, honorary director of the Vocational and Continuing Education Research Center at the East China Normal University, concluded in an interview with the magazine that the interpretation and publicity of vocational education policies has been insufficient, with parents unable to receive proper guidance.

A lot of parents are unwilling to send their children to vocational schools as they see it as a failure if their child is unable to attend university. Public attitudes toward those graduating from vocational schools are also a factor, potentially impacting future career opportunities.

Many vocational schools also lack modern teaching equipment and facilities for students due to a lack of funding. Yu Zhongwen, the founder and former principal of Shenzhen Vocational and Technical College told the China Philanthropist that the funding allocated to 100 vocational schools was less than the investment for one single major university. He said that despite existing guidelines, supporting facilities for the vocational education system are not yet in place, especially in underdeveloped regions. Yu pointed to the situation in other countries, stating that the investment ratio for vocational to normal education should be three to one.

According to the National Education Development Statistics Report published by the Ministry of Education, from 2011 to 2018, the number of students enrolled in all forms of vocational education institutions decreased from 8.7 million to 5.57 million. While the number has recovered somewhat since 2019 due to policy changes, the goal of achieving a roughly equal enrollment rate for vocational schools and normal high schools remains challenging.

A representative working in the vocational education sector said that vocational education prioritizes people’s livelihoods as opposed to economic development, enabling students to receive a qualification, earn more money and be capable of taking on positions that require a higher level of skill.

“Students with vocational education degrees should become middle-class,” commented the representative.