The U.S. and China differ in many ways. But when it comes to education, there’s one striking similarity. In both countries a mismatch exists between what young people learn and the skills employers need. Just as in the U.S., China’s university graduates—some 7 million each year—are struggling to find jobs.
Now China has a new approach to fixing its problematic education system: It will train many more of its young people in skills-based vocational institutions (China has both vocational high schools and vocational colleges), rather than having them go to regular high schools and universities for academic studies, reports the China Daily today.
“The rise of the Chinese economy is accompanied with quality improvements of Chinese products and services,” said premier Li Keqiang, speaking at a national vocational education confab in Beijing on June 23. “Imagine the scale and level of Chinese products and services if most of the 900-million-strong labor force can be trained to master medium- and high-level skills.”
A guideline issued by China’s State Council on Sunday aims to increase the number of students in vocational educational institutions from 29.34 million now, to 38.3 million by 2020. The total that year will be made up of 23.5 million studying at vocational high schools and 14.8 million in vocational colleges; the latter usually run programs lasting two to three years.
Some 600 universities could be converted into vocational colleges, adding to the 1,300 China already has, which graduated around 6 million students last year. While China already has the world’s largest number of vocational institutes (13,600 schools and colleges), they are underfunded, need upgraded facilities, and suffer faculty shortages, according to Ge Daokui, the director responsible for vocational studies at the education ministry.
National education authorities intend to start fixing the problems by requiring that local governments ensure adequate education funds are budgeted for vocational institutes. New policies will also encourage the creation of private vocational academies by offering preferential loans as well as favorable tax policies.
Convincing parents to encourage their children to choose vocational training over academic studies will be tough. As is true in many other parts of the world, getting a university degree grants one higher social status. But by emphasizing the high level support behind the latest policy shift, Beijing is trying to change attitudes towards skills-based education.
“Now the top leadership, including Premier Li Keqiang, are redefining modern vocational education,” said Liu Qiaoli, a researcher at the Beijing-based National Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the education ministry. “He connects it with improving people’s livelihoods and the country’s development, and he acknowledges the essential role of vocational education.”