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Seize Opportunities for Reform and Innovation in Vocational Education

Source: Tang Min Date: 2019-03-20

I have been engaged in some research and experiment programs in vocational education these years. Seeing that this topic was given much importance in the 2019 Government Work Report makes me very hopeful about the future of China’s vocational education.

Vocational colleges have now been identified as the priority of vocational education, ending a prolonged debate about whether vocational secondary education or vocational colleges should play a bigger role. In China, graduation from junior high schools is often taken as a watershed moment, with half graduates going on to senior high schools and the other half admitted into secondary vocational schools. However, secondary vocational schools often fail to meet their enrollment targets because neither the students themselves nor their parents are willing to take this path. To address this problem, educational authorities in some cities began in the past few years to allow graduates of secondary vocational schools to continue their studies in vocational colleges; in some cities, the number reached 50% to 60%. Together with demobilized military personnel, laid-off workers, and rural migrant workers, they make up an increasing part of vocational college enrollment, which used to be mainly reserved for high school graduates. So it was fitting that the Government Work Report set a target for expanding enrollment. In 2018, the total enrolment was 3.6 million. A one million increase means 25% more students will be admitted. It is important to get the relevant departments ready for such a surge, especially given that a number of vocational colleges used to have difficulties in enrollment. Whether a vocational college can enlarge its enrollment must be determined by its quality of education. In some cases, if the college itself is in poor conditions, its enrollment could even be decreased. The method of enrollment also needs an overhaul to adapt to the new sources of enrollment and the increased numbers.

The Report calls on enterprises and private actors to provide vocational education. Enterprises are a good choice because they can make education part of the world of work; with the graduates having a good chance of working for the enterprise, they will receive more attention in training. In fact, industries and enterprises used to be among the providers of vocational education in China. It was only after the reform and opening-up policy that they transferred this part of responsibility to educational authorities in order to lessen their burden in providing welfare services. But the side-effect was that vocational education became more about a diploma and less about hands-on skills. Reintroducing enterprises and private actors into the field is also in line with the recently released reform measures of the Ministry of Education. We look forward to more enterprises around the country who can and want to shoulder the responsibility becoming providers of vocational education.

Another policy in the Report with implications for vocational education is to allocate 100 billion yuan from the surplus in unemployment insurance funds to provide training for over 15 million people upgrading their skills or switching jobs or industries. People tend to think that students in classrooms are the targets of vocational education, when in fact vocational education is mostly carried out outside campuses. China has 280 million rural migrant works in cities; for various reasons, most of them entered the labor force right after junior high school or even primary school. These workers make up the majority of employees in Chinese industries. Their skills and education are crucial for China’s industrial growth. With vocational education, they can develop stronger skills and the quality of Chinese manufacturing and services will also rise in tandem.

From my own experience in training migrant workers in cities, young workers who return from cities to their home villages, and village teachers, I am keenly aware that vocational education for migrant workers cannot be confined within the walls of a classroom. With most of their daytime occupied by a job, they do not have the luxury of sitting in front of a desk for an extended period. A combination of online and offline education can help them make best use of their fragmented time. In this regard, the District of Longgang in Shenzhen deserves our attention for their large-scale pilot programs.

The State Council has made it clear in a recent document on implementing vocational education reforms that vocational education should be given more importance in the reform and innovation of the educational sector and economic and social development. The Report has supported this goal with a number of concrete measures. These are all reasons to believe in the promising future of vocational education in China. We are confident it will be a strong source of intellectual power for our country to realize the two centenary goals and the Chinese dream of the great renewal of our nation