Editorial: Vocational Education Needs Greater Respect
Draft amendments to the Vocational Education Law were recently submitted to the National People’s Congress (NPC) for deliberation. Naturally, the draft amendments have drawn much attention at a time when vocational education is subject to wide discussion. This is its first major revision since the Vocational Education Law came into effect in 1996, and it’s expected to resolve some conspicuous problems while providing a legal footing for vocational education’s sound long-term development.
Over the past decades, vocational education has produced numerous professionals who have contributed substantially to China’s development. Now, facing requirements for high-quality development, changes in the demographic structure and the advent of a low-carbon society, China has stronger demand for highly skilled labor. Yet China’s shortage of highly skilled workers has only worsened over the past few years. The challenges ultimately manifest as structural unemployment. This provides vocational education with an opportunity, but it also sounds an alarm. The mismatch between vocational education institutions’ output and social needs is quite evident nowadays. There are many posts that can’t find workers and many workers who can’t find posts.
In fact, this type of education has never been targeted for development; over there have been no real changes. Some have summarized vocational education’s plight in five words — “unrecognized” (vocational education has low social status); “diverse” (various models coexist); “insufficient” (too few personnel, students, faculty and facilities); “poor” (teachers’ qualifications, equipment and practical experience among students are all wanting); and “lacking” (a lack of laws, regulations, supporting policies and investment). Among these, the lack of recognition is the most outstanding problem. Both students and parents are loath to consider vocational training, whether in place of regular high school or higher education. A combination of factors have worked to undermine vocational school graduates’ competitiveness, further compounding the effects of an existing stereotype that vocational education is somehow inferior. If this vicious circle is not broken, vocational education’s outlook looks bleak indeed. However, the draft amendment contains a clause requiring active measures to improve the social status and treatment of technical and skilled personnel.
To improve vocational education’s social recognition, emphasis should be on practical efforts to improve overall quality and allow students to make the most of their skills. There is no publicity more persuasive than students’ successful careers. Lately, adjustment to the “regular-vocational ratio” (the ratio of students enrolled in regular high school to those enrolled in alternative vocational school) has been a hot topic. Parents and students are already anxious enough about dwindling opportunities and increased competition in education and the job market, and fear such adjustment would only turn the high school entrance examination into another “single-plank bridge” on top of and preceding the national college entrance examination. When deliberating the draft amendment, more than one NPC member argued that vocational education should recruit students by its own merits, rather than mandatory quota allocation. We strongly agree with this view.
If vocational education were to receive better social recognition, it would also guarantee freedom of choice to every student. But now, there is a huge difference between the paths of regular and vocational secondary education, which is why most students are unwilling to receive the latter type. Who, at 16 or 17 years old, is willing to accept a future with few or no chances to change course? This is why there needs to be a vocational education system built not only with strong internal connections but an “overpass” linking vocational with general education, such that each student has the chance to change lanes. The draft amendment responds to these requirements. It explicitly states the need to establish and perfect a modern vocational education system that effectively integrates both vocational and general education and coordinates between levels of vocational education — primary, secondary and beyond. Meanwhile, a national “credit bank” should be built to improve recognition and facilitate the accumulation and transformation of learning outcomes among all types and levels of vocational education (school-based education, practical training and more). The draft amendment also calls for the establishment and improvement of a framework for national qualifications, so that vocational learning outcomes can be integrated and recognized just as those of general education. These proposed measures are quite remarkable, and detailed rules should be formulated for their implementation as soon as possible.
There is much to develop within the vocational education system itself. But there is a major condition to satisfy first — sufficient educational investment, including instructors and funding. Compared with regular secondary and higher education, vocational education’s lack of investment clearly hampers its development and directly affects instructors and teaching quality. In 2020, the final state budget for higher education approached 135.5 billion yuan ($21 billion), while support for vocational education came to just 1.6 billion yuan. Some deputies to the NPC called the figure “bitterly disappointing,” and that’s no exaggeration. The draft amendment requires governments at all levels to establish a financial investment system appropriate for vocational education in terms of scale, quality and training costs. Once investment is increased, explicit guidance should be provided on its use. Vocational education cannot simply copy the investment and evaluation model used in general education.
Improving the recognition of vocational education is a systematic project requiring coordination between departments and the concerted efforts of political, commercial and academic circles — while preventing any unit from turning vocational education into a “vanity project.” The exact scale and design of vocational education must be determined on a solid rational basis. Once the central government and local authorities have lent vocational education policy and investment support, we must remain vigilant against supposed “great leap forwards,” or the blind pursuit of scale regardless of teaching quality or law. On policymakers’ part, it is also necessary to remove obstacles between departments. For example the disconnection between issuers of academic certificates in education departments and issuers of vocational qualification certificates in human resources and social security departments — that affect students’ employability. Many voices are calling out on this issue and it should be resolved with the utmost haste.
We have no choice but to acknowledge it: there is still a general lack of understanding of the rules and characteristics of vocational education in China. In this regard, consulting foreign experience can be quite valuable. Germany’s dual general-vocational education system offers a good example. More than half of German students choose vocational schools of their own initiative, as there is no hierarchy valuing one type of education over the other. This is backed by a complete and integrated system of dual-track education, school-enterprise cooperation, legal protections and culture. In Europe, some vocational schools adopt shorter programs, graduating students a year earlier than general universities, but charge higher tuition rates. After vocational students’ graduation, however, they can enjoy higher salaries than their university-graduate peers. We should meticulously investigate the formation of such systems and learn from their successes.
Although the draft amendment is an important step toward revitalizing China’s vocational education, there is still a long road ahead. Education is a slow variable that affects every individual family as well as the national human resource reserve. If we launch reforms in a timely and effective manner today, China’s talent advantages will be further evident down the line; but if we fail to act, we’re only setting up “stumbling blocks” for China’s future socioeconomic development. We hope that this amendment will improve the attractiveness and adaptability of vocational education, so that one day it can enjoy the same social recognition as general education.
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