BEIJING (CAIXIN GLOBAL) - China will soon need millions of the kinds of skilled workers who keep an economy functioning, such as auto mechanics, heating and air conditioner repair people, electricians, plumbers and computer technicians.
Yet the vocational education system has fallen into a shambles, leaving the world's second-largest economy ill equipped to replace millions of the highly skilled who are retiring as the population ages and the workforce shrinks. In 2021, 57.8 per cent of Chinese between 18 and 22 years old were enrolled in higher education, according to the Ministry of Education. Meanwhile, the proportion enrolled in vocational high schools dropped to 35 per cent in 2020 from 60 per cent in 1998.
A widening job market mismatch is becoming even more visible this year as a record number of college graduates leave campuses at a time when the economy faces greater headwinds from slower growth and pandemic disruptions. China has invested heavily over the past 30 years in public higher education.
Recognising the problem, Chinese authorities are scrambling to overhaul and rebuild the vocational training system. Last month new amendments to the 1996 Vocational Education Law took effect. The revision - the first since the law went into effect a quarter-century ago - is expected to address conspicuous problems while providing a legal foundation for vocational education's long-term development.
The revision declares that vocational education shares the same status as general education, offering legal backing to the sector. The new law also supports vocational schools adopting incentive mechanism for employees and encourages enterprises to get involved in vocational education for targeted talent training.
The enactment of the new amendment raised hopes of a boom for vocational education. But reshaping the underdeveloped system and changing people's long-established perception will require much more effort, education experts said. Many Chinese students and parents are loath to consider vocational training, whether in place of regular high school or higher education. That reflects the weaknesses of the current vocational training system and public stereotypes that vocational schools are "low-end and low-quality" and inferior to full-fledged universities.
To change such perceptions and make the vocational system better serve the economy requires greater investments in resources and talent to elevate the quality of the sector, experts said. There also need to be institutional arrangements to offer vocational school graduates with broader opportunities, such as an "overpass" linking vocational with general education that allows students to switch lanes, they said.
In September 2020, nine central government departments led by the Ministry of Education issued a guideline with the goal of expanding vocational school enrolment and establishing a higher education system for vocational training. In June 2021, the populous Henan province unveiled a plan to establish a local vocational college entrance exam system in which the weighting of the scores of professional skills test would be at least 50 per cent.
In October, the State Council, China's cabinet, issued a guideline to promote "high-quality" development of vocational education, with the goal of expanding the share of vocational college enrolment to at least 10 per cent of the total enrolment of higher education institutions by 2025.
China started building its vocational education system in the late 1970s in hopes of addressing a talent scarcity after a decade of educational and economic disruptions. In 1985, the central government issued a policy document to set up a two-track education system in which about half of students would go for vocational training in high schools.
The policy reflected the country's urgent needs for skilled workers as well as a surge of students seeking university enrolment that swamped the education system. The policy fuelled a boom in vocational training in the 1980s.
By the end of 1989, there were 9,173 secondary vocational schools in China, enrolling more than 2.8 million students. These schools laid the foundation for China's current vocational education system.
In 1990, 48 per cent of China's students admitted by high schools continued their studies in vocational schools, up from 21 per cent in 1980. The ratio further expanded to 60 per cent in following years.
Chinese families favoured vocational schools then because they trained students with practical skills that could secure a stable career. State companies and government institutions backed many vocational schools to supply their own needs for skilled talent. But a sweeping overhaul of state-owned companies and reshuffles of government institutions in the late 1990s cut the ties between vocational schools and such sponsors, affecting the schools' access to funding.
Although the 1996 Vocational Education Law laid the legal groundwork for the development of higher vocational education, the system has gradually been marginalised as more emphasis was put on general and professional education, producing scientists, business managers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, economists and government bureaucrats.
China's general college and universities experienced rapid growth in the 2000s as authorities pushed to increase availability of higher education. Universities invested heavily to add departments to attract students for diverse subject offerings. In five years after 1999, China's undergraduate recruitment expanded more than threefold. The world's largest university system has produced 240 million college graduates, nearly 18 per cent of the world's largest population, according to the Ministry of Education. Meanwhile, the vocational training system shrank further. From 1999 to 2000, vocational education's share of the national total education budget declined from 11.53 per cent to 8.42 per cent.
Several government policies in following years had limited effect in arresting the decline of vocational school enrolment. In 2020, the number of vocational high school students accounted for 39.96 per cent of all high school students, and those enrolled in vocational colleges amounted to 34.89 per cent of college students.
Low social recognition, inadequate resources and poor teaching quality have plagued many vocational schools in China. A 2020 survey by Peking University showed that only 35 per cent of vocational high school graduates successfully found a job. Businesses that used to be important sponsors of vocational education stepped back as it became increasingly difficult to secure a supply of qualified graduates, according to Wang Shoubin, deputy head of the Suzhou Industrial Park Institute of Vocational Technology.
The plight of vocational schools reflects the opaque goals of vocational education in China - whether it should be professional skill training or general knowledge-building, experts said. Behind the scenes is a disconnect between issuers of academic certificates in education departments and issuers of vocational qualification certificates in human resources and social security departments, which affect students' employability.
Different types of professional training institutions and vocational schools fall under separate oversight by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS), with different requirements and standards.
Calls have risen in recent years to unify the supervision of vocational education, but no concrete steps have been taken due to complexities including budgets, resources and the vast numbers of jobs affected.
In a 2009 report, the National People's Congress cited multiple supervisors, scattered resources and low efficiency as the main issues hindering the development of vocational education. The world's developed economies including the United States have confronted similar workforce-development challenges with varying degrees of success and failure.
Many vocational education experts suggested that China learn from Germany's dual general-vocational education system. More than half of German students choose vocational schools on their own initiative as there is no hierarchy valuing one type of education over another. This is backed by a complete and integrated system of dual-track education, school-enterprise cooperation, legal protections and culture.
The new version of China's Vocational Education Law is expected to pave the way for some long-sought changes. The revised statute includes a clause to develop vocational college education offering an equivalent undergraduate diploma. It also vows to develop skilled worker training in vocational high schools and encourages the involvement of enterprises and non-government organisations.
But there are still many unresolved issues, experts said. Implementation of the new law is also awaiting detailed guidelines and supportive policies with coordination among different departments to be carried out, the experts said.
This story was originally published by Caixin Global.