Testing times ahead for China's education reform

Testing times ahead for China's education reform

Hebei native Guo Yongqiang, 22, did well enough in high school to qualify for an accounting course at university - the path his parents preferred him to take.

But he chose to study automotive service engineering at a vocational college instead, a choice that made them fret that he would have trouble finding a wife and starting a family.

"They thought that I would never have a proper place in society," said the Mercedes-Benz intern, who is set to graduate from his vocational college in Lanfang city next year. "But I thought that the employment market is bad for accountants, while there are more and more people buying cars."

Statistically, Mr Guo is spot-on: Last week, in its latest push to promote vocational institutions to young Chinese to stem a glut of university graduates, the Ministry of Education said that graduates from vocational schools and colleges have an employment rate of above 90 per cent. This is much higher than the employment rate for university graduates, which hovers at about 65 per cent.

After years of nurturing its network of universities, the Chinese central government now wants to correct the imbalance of too many young people looking for white-collar jobs in a predominately blue-collar economy.

Earlier this year, it rolled out a plan that included expanding the number of vocational colleges by converting 600 universities, and making local governments allocate more of their education budgets to vocational institutions.

It also wants to boost the number of students who take the vocational education path from 29 million now to 38.2 million in 2020. In China today, there are about 40 million university students.

But experts say that the blueprint is putting the cart before the horse. Expanding China's network of vocational schools is pre-emptive when many of them lack students, noted National Institute of Education Sciences (NIES) analyst Sun Cheng.

For example, he noted, Guangdong Donghua Vocational College had 2,149 spots in 2012 and only 1,152 takers.

This state of affairs will not improve until employers, including the government itself, stop discriminating against non-graduates, said experts and vocational students.

The quality of vocational institutions must also increase significantly to include proper apprenticeship programmes in partnership with industries, they said.

Like in Singapore, whose Parliament recently endorsed the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review committee report, which called on bosses to go beyond qualifications in developing workers, students in China who take the vocational path still struggle with being seen as rejects from universities.

Mr Guo, who says he could have qualified for accounting, is in the minority; most vocational students turn to vocational institutions because they did not do well enough to go into degree programmes.

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