During the summer of 2021, the Chinese government initiated drastic policies to reform the education sector. As part of the Common Prosperity Campaign, the goal of the reform, according to the Chinese government, is to make education affordable for all families and reduce the excessive competition among students because of the National College Entrance Exam (gaokao). Overnight, the suppression of cram schools transformed several large private education institutions into shambles. Besides this high-profile crackdown, the Department of Education announced an ambitious project to expand China’s vocational education system. Fifty percent of middle school graduates will enroll in technical schools rather than academic high schools, it said.
The Chinese government regards the lack of a skilled and educated workforce as a significant bottleneck for China’s transition to an innovative power. Currently, about 70 percent of the Chinese labor force not only has no high school education but also lacks the potential for human capital development. The skilled labor shortage in the Chinese manufacturing sector will reach 30 million by 2025. As a result, the Chinese government prioritized the training of skilled workers in its development plans. The 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) highlights the need to train skilled workers. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security launched a campaign to increase 40 million skilled workers during the 14th FYP.
The Chinese government believes that the solution to this pressing problem is to expand the vocational education system. Many observers note that China is learning from the German education system, which successfully trains skilled workers and engineers through a robust technical school system to support an innovative manufacturing industry. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security plans to accelerate the expansion of the vocational education system and graduate 2 million highly skilled workers by 2025. This policy particularly targets rural areas, where high school enrollment rates are below 40 percent. The government pledged to eliminate vocational school tuition and provide financial aid to poor rural students. The government also reiterated this vocational school expansion policy in every Agricultural Number One Document between 2015 and 2021.
To understand the prospect of China’s technical school drive, one can compare it to South Korea’s vocational education system. The history of Korean vocational education shares many similarities with China’s ambitious drive. President Park Chung-hee pushed for the establishment of the vocational high school system in the 1960s. Park did not believe that industrialization required rapid increases in university enrollment. The rapid college expansion and the increase of university graduates also would have aggravated the student protest problem he faced. Thus, Park viewed technical schools as the solution to provide training in craft skills for the flourishing labor-intensive light industries. The Korean government established the vocational school system based on the German model, and these technical schools played an important role in supplying engineers and technicians for industrial upgrades. During the 1970s, the Korean government strengthened the vocational school system and reoriented the curriculum from craft skills to engineering for the heavy and chemical industries drive. Since the 1990s, the technical schools have trained skilled workers suitable for the booming information and communication technology (ICT) sectors.
The vocational education system attracts different audiences in Korea and China. In Korea, the vocational school system attracted the best and brightest students. Many students, especially poor students, considered entering technical school a prestigious achievement. Prospective middle school students often needed to receive a letter of recommendation from their middle school principals to guarantee entrance to technical high schools. The government also expanded scholarships to induce outstanding students regardless of their family financial backgrounds. Unlike the Korean case, the Chinese technical schools have the terrible reputation of low academic standards filled with ungifted “leftover” students. Technical schools have always been the second choice for Chinese parents. Students take the High School Entrance Exam after 9th grade, and those who pass a certain score threshold can qualify for academic high schools. Students who cannot pass the threshold and are not academically qualified for academic high schools can go to technical schools to continue their education.
In addition, Korean vocational high schools were known for their rigorous academic standards. Through several curriculum reconstructions, these schools not only teach students technical skills but also improve students’ abilities for life-long learning. The Korean government adopted the National Technical Qualification Act in 1973, which allows the government to set standards and monitor the quality of vocational education. In addition, it established the National Technical Skills Qualification (NTQ) Tests in 1974, which benchmarks student learning during their time at vocation schools. All students must pass the NTQ Test to graduate. Compared to Korea, vocational schools in China have a bad reputation for being irresponsible; they don’t care whether students are learning. Teachers are also viewed as apathetic. They often only deliver lectures woodenly without caring about the fact that students are either sleeping or playing mobile games on their phones. As a result, 91 percent of students scored the same or worse in math exams attending a vocational school for a year, showing that rural vocational school students are not learning much at all. Therefore, many Chinese students and families alike view attending technical schools as wasting time.
During the period of high-speed growth in Korea, graduation from the vocational school system led to stable, high-paying employment as technicians and engineers. Vocational high schools played a vital role in students’ employment by establishing networks with industries and firms to help students find employers. As a result, 57 percent of Korean vocational school students could find employment through school recommendations. Seventeen percent of students find jobs through field training, which was usually arranged by the schools. In addition, more than 80 percent of students found jobs related to their majors at school. Chinese technical schools do not bring employment benefits to students after their graduation. Most students are not receiving proper job training, as 56 percent of students spend their job training sessions working in low-level manufacturing. Thus, most vocational high school graduates can only compete for the same low-skill jobs as middle school graduates who did not attend vocational high schools. As a result, many middle school graduates do not see the value of continuing education at technical schools; they tend to opt out of education and begin to work early in low-skill sectors.
Recent developments show mixed signals on the future of China’s vocational education system. On the one hand, the Chinese government has introduced some policies to strengthen the vocational education drive. For example, the introduction of technical skill certificates helps to benchmark and monitor technical learning. Allowing firms to establish their own technical schools might solve the employment problem. On the other hand, the absence of effective monitoring leads to implementation problems and fraud. Economist Scott Rozelle found that in one province, nearly 20 percent of registered vocational schools are in name only; they have no school building, teachers, or students. Well-connected people established them to receive government funds and subsidies.
The comparison with South Korea illustrates that China’s technical schools cannot fulfill the government’s target of training a skilled workforce. The blind expansion of the vocational education system only deprives more students of quality education. As a result, it will not reduce competition among students as the Chinese government planned. The lack of quality higher education resources means that Chinese high schoolers must compete for the limited spots at precious universities. The vocational education drive aims to ease that competition by reducing the number of students enrolling in academic high schools and participating in the gaokao. However, due to the poor quality of technical schools, the high school enrollment reduction led to intensifying High School Entrance Exam competition. One mom of a Beijing middle schooler said that she was horrified when she walked into the parent-teacher conference and realized that half of the 40-student class could not attend academic high school. At that moment, she decided that she must do everything to make sure her daughter would not become one of the 20 “leftovers.” Therefore, this policy does not reduce competition; it only makes it earlier.