BEIJING (CAIXIN GLOBAL) – China will soon need millions of skilled workers who keep the economy running, such as auto mechanics, heating and air conditioning repairers, electricians, plumbers and computer technicians.
Yet the vocational education system has fallen into disrepair, leaving the world’s second-largest economy ill-equipped to replace millions of highly skilled people retiring as the population ages and the workforce shrinks. In 2021, 57.8 percent of Chinese people aged 18 to 22 were enrolled in higher education, according to the Ministry of Education. Meanwhile, the proportion of enrollment in vocational secondary schools fell to 35% in 2020 from 60% in 1998.
A growing labor market mismatch becomes even more visible this year as record numbers of college graduates leave campuses at a time when the economy faces greater headwinds from slower growth and disruption pandemic. China has invested heavily over the past 30 years in public higher education.
Recognizing the problem, Chinese authorities are scrambling to overhaul and rebuild the vocational training system. Last month new amendments to the Vocational Education Act 1996 came into force. The revision – the first since the law came into force a quarter of a century ago – should solve obvious problems while providing a legal basis for the long-term development of vocational education.
The revision states that vocational education shares the same status as general education, offering legal support to the sector. The new law also supports vocational schools by adopting an incentive mechanism for employees and encourages companies to get involved in vocational education for targeted training of talents.
The enactment of the new amendment raised hopes of a boom in vocational education. But reshaping the underdeveloped system and changing people’s long-established perception will take a lot more effort, education experts said. Many Chinese students and parents are reluctant to consider vocational training, whether in place of high school or higher education. This reflects weaknesses in the current vocational training system and public stereotypes that vocational schools are “low-end and shoddy” and inferior to full-fledged universities.
Changing these perceptions and making the professional system better serve the economy requires more investment in resources and talent to raise the quality of the sector, experts said. There must also be institutional arrangements to provide vocational school graduates with broader opportunities, such as a “higher pass” linking vocational education with general education that allows students to change pathways, they said.
In September 2020, nine central government departments led by the Ministry of Education issued a directive with the aim of expanding enrollment in vocational schools and establishing a higher education system for vocational training. In June 2021, the populous province of Henan unveiled a plan to establish a local vocational college entrance examination system in which the weighting of vocational skills test scores would be at least 50%.
In October, the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a directive to promote “high-quality” development of vocational education, with the aim of expanding the share of vocational college enrollment to at least 10% of the total number of enrollments in higher education institutions. by 2025.
China began building its vocational education system in the late 1970s in hopes of addressing a talent shortage after a decade of educational and economic disruption. In 1985, the central government issued a policy document to establish a two-track education system in which about half of the students would receive vocational training in high schools.
The policy reflected the country’s urgent need for skilled workers as well as a wave of college-seeking students that was overwhelming the education system. This policy fueled a vocational training boom in the 1980s.
By the end of 1989, there were 9,173 secondary vocational schools in China, enrolling over 2.8 million students. These schools laid the foundation for the current vocational education system in China.
In 1990, 48% of Chinese students admitted to high schools continued their studies in vocational schools, compared to 21% in 1980. This ratio increased to 60% in the following years.
Chinese families then preferred vocational schools because they trained students with practical skills that could ensure a stable career. State-owned enterprises and government institutions have supported many vocational schools to meet their own needs for skilled talent. But a radical overhaul of public enterprises and reshuffling of government institutions in the late 1990s severed the links between vocational schools and these sponsors, affecting the schools’ access to funding.