China’s push to expand vocational education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Chinese government has designated 100 billion yuan (about US$15 billion) to expand the vocational training system
  • A new system will see some universities transform into “Universities of Applied Sciences,” with graduates emerging with both degrees and diplomas as well as specialised vocational certificates in high-priority fields

In countries across the world, post-secondary education is increasingly expected to further the immediate employment needs of graduates and to fill skills gaps in economies. And now a Chinese government decision offers the latest evidence of the trend. The Chinese State Council has announced that 100 billion yuan (roughly US$15 billion) will be earmarked to expand vocational skills training in the country’s post-secondary system.

The decision dovetails with China’s overarching goal of expanding enrolment in vocational college programmes by one million students as part of an “employment-first” macroeconomic policy, a goal summarised in a weighty document issued this spring called the “Implementation Plan of National Vocational Education Reform.”

Increased funding

Skills acquisition and upgrading of the Chinese workforce – particularly in rural areas where the economy’s dramatic expansion over the past decade has not always been felt ­– has become still more pressing for the government as economic growth has slowed to the lowest rate in 27 years (6.2% in the 2019 fiscal quarter ending in June). Enrolment in universities is now at a record high in China even as there is a severe skills mismatch in the economy and as companies are reducing hiring of university graduates. Online recruiter Zhaopin reports that job openings for graduates fell 13% this spring alone.

At the same time, the population of working-age Chinese is falling and is expected to drop to just 57% of the population in 2030 (from about 65% today).

Current workers urged to enrol

Lifelong learning, which is ever more a buzzword in education, is a major priority within the Chinese government’s overall goal of expanding skills training. In the February executive meeting in which the new funding commitment was announced, Premier Li Keqiang stated that local governments across the country will be supported in encouraging workers to enrol in vocational education, and that all eligible workers can receive subsidies to enrol in skills training programmes.

The government is urging  – in fact, requiring – colleges to adjust their programming and recruiting to cover a wider cross-section of the public, and it is also providing support for companies to launch their own professional development programmes. A government scholarship for vocational training is in the works to help vocational colleges increase their programming and operations, and financial assistance will be expanded for students themselves.

Vocational training for all – including degree students

Target groups for vocational education include “high school students, demobilised military personnel, laid-off workers and rural migrant workers.”

Yet these are not the only groups that will be enrolling in vocational education – not by a long shot. In close to a dozen Chinese provinces, universities and colleges are piloting a new model called the “1+X system” that clearly demonstrates the shift underway in how higher education and vocational education are valued in China.

Students enrolled in the “1+X system” graduate with both traditional academic degrees and vocational certificates, which – given the government’s growing emphasis on skills training – promises to give them a leg up in the job market. The pilot focuses on programmes that will graduate students into industries known to be short on skilled talent.

The pilot is the first step of a plan that aims to see as many as 50 Chinese universities transformed into “Universities of Applied Sciences” by 2022, institutions whose programmes will follow the “1+X” system.

In addition, the Chinese government has announced a target that will see teacher training change dramatically in the country to match the new emphasis on vocation education. China Daily reports that “teachers with both theoretical and practical skills will account for over half of the total number of professional teachers.”

Reforms will be swift

Inside Higher Ed notes that because of the extreme influence of government policy on the Chinese economy, the pivot towards vocational education will happen quickly and at a scale that would be impossible in most other nations:

“The plans illustrate not only the scale of reform in China but also the pace at which it can unfold, and the way in which demographics, economics, culture and labor-force needs can collide to force a deflection in social policy.”

At the news conference introducing the Implementation Plan of National Vocational Education Reform, Director of the Department of Vocational Education and Adult Education of the Ministry of Education Wang Jipang explained that, “Vocational education and general education…are two different types of education and have the same important status. This is a very important new judgment.”

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