April 16, 2014, by Tony Hong

Vocational education, why we need it for China’s higher education reform

By Dr. Youqing Fan,

Assistant Professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies,

The University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

China’s higher education system has long been directed towards cultivating academic talents, whilst the value of technique and skill-oriented vocational education has been downplayed. This tendency is reflected in the way that high school students are assessed. They are only judged by their academic score for entry into Chinese universities.

However, signals show that the education and assessment model might be changed as part of the ongoing higher educational reform. In a recent state council meeting on Feb 26th, the Chinese premier Li Keqiang gave a speech on the ‘modern development of vocational education’, which heated the discussion over the question of whether and how to involve the vocational education as the integral part of the higher education reform.

Following Li’s speech, in early March, a senior official in Education Ministry of China, Lu Xin, reported that an alternative technical skill based college entrance system will be introduced to coexist with the current academic-oriented system. High school students are required to make their own choice on which route (skill or academic) to proceed when they are in their first year of high school study.

An online poll done immediately after Lu’s talk shows was done to examine how web citizens view this possible change. The results show that 43% of the voters agree that the educational system needs to be reformed with vocational education certificates/diplomas introduced as a supplement and alternative to academic-oriented undergraduate degree education. More than half of the 43% even recognize that introducing vocational education into tertiary education is vital for the success of the overall higher education reform. However, there are still 33% of the overall voters who doubt the legitimacy and value of vocational education, worrying about the involvement of the technique oriented system may downgrade the threshold of higher education.

The bright side of introducing vocational education is that it could diversify the demands for higher education and provide labour market with the needed workforce who have advanced techniques. There are some existing cases where vocational education has already been successfully integrated into the higher education system, for example, Germany.

However, the new initiative is faces serious challenges which require universities and industries to make solid efforts in working together and identifying market demands for technique-oriented talents. In addition, universities are to design their courses and curriculums according to market demands. Once the technique graduates get better job placements in the market, it will be more convincing for vocational education to be involved as part of the higher education family.

A further question is how to achieve this university-market coordination. It was suggested by Li Keqiang in his Feb 26th speech that the government would encourage private capital to be involved in vocational education development, aiming at forming mixed ownership higher education corporations to bridge the labour market skill demands and graduate supplies via various forms of public-private collaborations. It is expected to witness and achieve a triple-win result for individual families, universities and the firms.

Without doubt, it will still be a long way ahead for Chinese vocational education to go before it could genuinely be incorporated into the higher education system. It will be interesting to keep watching how private and public ownership interact and form the future of China’s vocational education. It is, nonetheless, argued by Premier Li that, like in other reform domains, market will be expected to play a decisive role in the higher education reform as well. The value of vocational education will finally be proved by the labour market.

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