China runs the largest Vocational Education and Training (VET) system in the world. There are more than 15,000 vocational institutions at the secondary and tertiary levels combined. The VET system has developed rapidly in a relatively short period of time and China has made significant investments to modernize its offerings. However, challenges remain, including the need to broaden the scope of VET curriculum, strengthen connections to industry, and create pathways into further education.
In China, vocational education is provided through separate secondary schools and tertiary institutions. In 2014, 45 percent of students opted for vocational secondary schools rather than academic secondary schools.
Chinese students can choose to pursue vocational education at the end of lower secondary school, around age 15. These programs are offered by vocational and technical schools at the upper secondary level; after completing upper secondary vocational education, students can go on to regional polytechnic colleges. These colleges are legally required to give admissions priority to graduates of vocational and technical schools, and provide on-the-job training as well as classroom-based learning. Students typically earn associate’s degrees from these institutions.
The VET system was developed through a set of government initiatives from the late 1970s through the late 1990s, all of which sought to standardize and promote this type of learning as a support to China’s economy. The government provides subsidies to students at both the national and provincial levels to encourage students to pursue vocational education, and ensures that teachers are up-to-date with industry needs, skills, and standards by requiring them to spend one month in industry each year, and also promoting the hiring of part-time teachers who also work in industry.
Vocational education has, as a result of these reforms, become increasingly popular among Chinese students; between 1980-2001, the proportion of secondary vocational students increased from 19 percent to 45.3 percent. However, as access to university education is increasing, it appears these numbers are beginning to decline. Yet, vocational education remains a strong option: the Ministry of Education reports that 96 percent of graduates from vocational schools were able to find jobs, unlike university graduates who, due to their unprecedented high numbers in recent years, have greater difficulty. Various reports put the number for post-university employment anywhere between 70 percent and 94 percent.
Recent government initiatives have promoted the importance of adult education as China seeks to shake off its agrarian past and move forward as a science and technology leader. These initiatives are designed around pre-employment training for adults who left school early as well as basic education for adults who never attended school or who failed to develop these skills in school. A major component is literacy programs for middle-aged adults. Between 1949 and 2015, the adult illiteracy rate decreased from 80 percent to just under 4 percent.
China’s VET system is not fully modernized. The system is school-based, with the schools driving the curriculum and teaching rather than relying more on industry cooperation to ensure that lessons are rigorous and relevant. Programs tend to have narrow curriculum, relatively weak connections to industry, and lower funding than academic education. However, China is making a huge investment in vocational education to expand offerings aligned to industry need and strengthen quality.
At a national vocational education meeting in 2016, the government announced that the number of students at vocational high schools should reach 23.5 million, with 14.8 million at vocational colleges by 2020. The focus is to develop student skills in modern agriculture, advanced manufacturing, modern service businesses, new strategic industries and social management, and ecological civilization. The plan calls for improved school facilities and better trained faculty. According to the proposal, by 2020 a modern VET system should be fully in place with world-class standards that fit Chinese society and are integrated with industrial development.