Author: Jessica Yu, Graphics: Caroline Yee
The BRB Bottomline:
Every year, the “bottom half” of middle school graduates in China enroll in a vocational school, where they learn professional skills and apply it to a job after graduation. However, the learning experiences and job opportunities after graduation often fail to meet expectations. The changes in the vocational school system reflect the changing dynamics of China’s economy, and future economic prospects might provide opportunities for innovation of the system.
In 2022, more than 15 million middle school graduates in China took the zhongkao, an exam that determines admission into high school. Among these students, only 50% received a score that granted them acceptance to an academic high school, while the rest were relegated to one of China’s 7686 vocational high schools.
China’s vocational schools, sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, put emphasis on key skills applicable to more blue-collar careers. These skills typically include manufacturing with concentrations in machinery and electronics, as well as food, education, and catering services.
Over the past two decades, Chinese society has generally stereotyped vocational high school students as “ungifted,” often associating them with teenage pregnancy, involvement in street gangs, and sleeping through classes.
Even though vocational high schools are often dismissed as an inferior alternative to academic schools, they cannot be ignored, as they determine the fate of almost 50% of Chinese students. More importantly, with the Chinese government officially announcing policies to improve the quality of vocational education in 2020, these schools cannot continue to be written off as simply the undesirable choice that 16-year-olds turn to when they have no other options.
A Brief History of “Vocational Schools”
Although vocational schools are theoretically meant to help students find jobs, graduates of vocational schools often end up in relatively undesirable working conditions with low wages. Because of this, vocational schools are often regarded as a last resort. But, this wasn’t always the case — in fact, in their early days, vocational schools were largely preferred by students over academic high schools.
Vocational Schools in Their Early Days
The vocational school system in China gained popularity during the economic boom in the 1980s when there was a great demand for human capital. Because the government was not investing much in higher education back then, there were insufficient numbers of college graduates to fill up skilled job positions; thus, graduates of vocational schools were very competitive in the job market.
A degree from a vocational school also translated to a high chance of getting a stable job in a factory that provided several benefits and services, such as cash transfers, free food, and free housing. However, unsustainably good working conditions in factories didn’t last long because of efficiency issues within state-owned enterprises; eventually, the wave of privatization in the 1990s ultimately led to the mass closure of state-owned factories and consequently closed many job opportunities for vocational school graduates.
Changes in Economic Structure and the Fall of Vocational Schools
After the consistent decline of state-owned enterprises following the end of the Cultural Revolution, factory jobs were no longer as desirable as they once were. Some cities have never recovered from this change and are, to this day, still suffering from industrial decay. However, others successfully replaced in factories inefficient, unilaterally state-run administration with more efficient hybrid structures that combined private ownership with government assistance. These new factories granted many jobs to the working-age population but under much harsher conditions: some even operated as sweatshops, to which Western countries would outsource their manufacturing in order to cut costs.
This development of the work environment in Chinese factories coincided with a time when higher education in China was expanding massively. Higher education institutions saw an enormous spike in enrollment; from 1998 to 2004, the number of students entering college annually increased from 1.08 million to 4.47 million, and the number of total undergraduate enrollment increased from 3.41 million to 13.33 million. As more students moved to academically-focused universities, the demand for secondary school graduates decreased as they were replaced by university graduates.
These factors led to the fall of vocational schools. In 1998, there were 17,100 vocational schools, with 4.42 million new students being accepted; in 2001, however, only 13,500 vocational schools were still open, together accepting just 3.38 million new students. During the same period, academic high schools saw a marked increase in both the number of schools and number of new students admitted.
Vocational Schools Today
Besides the aforementioned issues, there are also a few controversies around the vocational school system today.
1. Disconnect Between Schools and Companies
Another major factor that has driven students away from vocational schools is the misallocation of their students into the workforce. As part of the final years of their training, vocational schools give students the opportunity to sign a contract with a factory. However, instead of having an opportunity to expand their knowledge and gain applicable experience in a real-world working environment, students are faced with a different story; they are often assigned to jobs that do not fit their skill sets and are subject to stringent oversight from a bureaucratic system and related government departments.
2. Inequality of Educational Outcome
Like with other educational systems, the outcomes of Chinese vocational education have been unequal. Students that come from a family with an annual income of above 100,000 RMB (~$14,000) and have at least one parent who works in the government sector are more likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree after graduation. On the other hand, students who have more than two siblings, have family incomes of less than 20,000 RMB (~$2,800), and have rural residency, are more likely to pursue blue-collar labor after graduation as opposed to attending academically oriented higher education. By these numbers, vocational schools are not significantly successful in improving the educational, and ultimately career, prospects of disadvantaged students.
How Can Situations Become Better?
Recent Government Policy
In the summer of 2021, the Chinese government initiated drastic changes in education policy, with the goal of making education more accessible and improving the blue-collar workforce of the nation. Furthermore, in May 2022, a revised Vocational Education Law was enacted, meant to provide equal opportunities for vocational school graduates and enhance the social recognition of vocational education. However, no dramatic changes in the system have been observed since these two developments, making their effectiveness unclear at best.
That being said, some notable vocational schools have successfully reformed their systems to improve both efficiency and equality. Their changes include putting increased emphasis on practical applications, as well as motivating students to have high aspirations and work towards them; they achieved this through allowing students to broaden their horizons by providing opportunities to study abroad, network, and collaborate with internationally renowned companies. These effective measures could provide a critical sense of direction for future reform policy.
Future Changes in Economic Structure?
In modern-day China, service jobs are in higher demand and pay more than they did in previous years. For example, families are often willing to pay high fees for nannies and sitters who are in high demand. The high-end manufacturing and production industries will also soon expand in China to meet the increasing demand for goods such as electrical vehicles.
The government has recognized this trend — a representative from the Chinese government announced during the discussion of vocational education laws in 2021 that 30 million and 40 million skilled workers will be needed in key manufacturing and service industries, respectively. Despite this anticipated demand, only 1 million vocational school students graduate with adequate skills every year. If government institutions can invest accordingly, vocational schools can efficiently fill this void.
- Chinese middle schoolers who rank in the bottom 50% of their class often enroll in vocational schools over typical academic high schools.
- The outcomes of vocational school education are not meeting people’s expectations.
- Historically, young people actually preferred vocational schools that could send them into stable factory job positions.
- However, after the working conditions in Chinese factories fell, the popularity of vocational schools declined along with it.
- Vocational schools today also suffer from corruption and unequal educational outcomes.
- In the future, government policies should focus on innovation in vocational schools and keeping up with growing industries such as childcare and key sectors of manufacturing.