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Some Chinese universities are switching to a hybrid model of combined academic and vocational education as the country grapples with its unique demographic challenges as well as graduate employability problems akin to those afflicting higher education sectors elsewhere.

Universities and vocational colleges in about 10 Chinese provinces are piloting the “1+X” system, whereby students emerge with both academic degrees and a cluster of vocational certificates, under a plan that could see hundreds of undergraduate institutions assume a more applied focus by 2022.

The pilot, which started in March, is part of a broader pivot from higher to vocational education unveiled in February. The government has committed 100 billion yen ($15 billion) from the country’s unemployment insurance fund to overhaul vocational education teaching and facilities, upgrade the skills of a reported 15 million people -- including recruiting a million additional vocational students this year alone -- and tackle a mind-set that vocational education is inferior to university study.

The plans illustrate not only the scale of reform in China but also the pace at which it can unfold, and the way in which demographics, economics, culture and labor-force needs can collide to force a deflection in social policy.

The Chinese Ministry of Education’s director of vocational and adult education, Wang Jiping, said that while vocational and academic education were different, they had “the same important status,” according to the translation of a government-sanctioned press conference transcript.

The focus on vocational education has emerged amid record university graduations, with 8.34 million Chinese obtaining degrees this year -- 140,000 more than in 2018 and about two million more than in 2010, according to Tsinghua University education researcher Zhou Zhong.

However, international education market intelligence site ICEF Monitor reported that the pool of jobs per graduate was shrinking, while the South China Morning Post recounted survey findings that graduates were competing for “a dwindling number of vacancies” in an economy struggling to sustain growth amid the trade war with the U.S.

In comments reported by business news channel CNBC, China’s top economic planning body said that domestic companies were cutting their intake of new university graduates. “Recruitment demand for university graduates is tightening in internet, finance and other industries,” said the statement from the National Development and Reform Commission. It said that some companies had reduced, postponed or suspended their campus recruiting efforts.

People without degrees are also finding it tougher to get jobs, according to the chair of Australian studies at Peking University, Pookong Kee.

Meanwhile, China is grappling with a dwindling pool of workers. China’s working-age population shrank by almost 3 percent between 2011 and 2018, according to a report compiled by the Australian embassy in Beijing, and now accounts for about 65 percent of the country’s population -- with projections that this will have slumped to 57 percent by 2030.

Kee said that during festivals such as Chinese New Year, when workers returned to their home provinces, factories closed down for lack of technicians. “As China upgrades its manufacturing and other industries, they are looking for people with high skills,” he said.

But a “strong social stigma” had developed against training for such jobs in China and nearby South Korea, where a Confucian approach militated against vocational education. This attitude “places a premium on university,” he said.

Kee said that new workers in some technical areas now commanded higher salaries than university graduates. Nevertheless, parents did not want their children working as technicians.

“Everybody wants their kids to go to the top universities,” he said, adding that the 1+X system -- with its job-delivering vocational certificates as well as its face-saving degree -- was a cultural as well as practical solution.

While information is sketchy on the number of universities offering 1+X, the Australian Embassy said those that embraced the model would be rebadged as “universities of applied sciences.” Reports on government websites do not specify how many institutions are expected to sign up, but participation this year is not limited to the officially sanctioned pilot regions.

Zhong said that the ministry planned to “scale up” to more regions in 2020 and to introduce the model throughout China’s higher vocational colleges, which collectively account for 53 percent of the country’s higher education institutions. She added, “The plan is to have all [the colleges], if not yet all of their programs, adopt the model in 2022.

“The Ministry of Education’s increased funding and rapid expansion of vocational education sends a signal to the Chinese people about [its] growing value.”

Zhong said that China’s tertiary gross enrollment rate was expected to reach 50 percent in 2020. “For those who go [into] the labor market after undergraduate education, there is increased need to distinguish themselves,” she added.

“The 1+X qualification may well differentiate the bearers from those who only have academic degrees from general higher education institutions.”

Hiroshima University education researcher Futao Huang said that Chinese universities would inevitably become more practically oriented if higher education enrollments continued to rise.

He said that the government’s plan would also foster utilization of vocational colleges -- some of which have reportedly been at 30 percent capacity -- by focusing on employability, strengthening ties with industry and creating “more flexible pathways” for their graduates.

Zhong said that the government also planned to widen vocational colleges’ admissions from the traditional intake of high school leavers to include retired servicemen, laid-off workers and migrants from rural areas.

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