Chinese students can choose to pursue vocational education 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.
This 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% to 45.3%. 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 96.56% 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 and 94%.
The Chinese education system also offers many pathways for lifelong learning, some formal and others informal, run by universities, individuals and for-profit organizations. These include sabbatical study, evening programs and classes, distance learning courses and self-study examinations. Some of these programs and courses lead to certificates and diplomas.
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 2000, the adult illiteracy rate decreased from 80% to just over 8%.
Despite its successes, Shanghai is continuing to improve its vocational education system. In July 2014, six Chinese ministerial-level departments jointly produced a plan to reform vocational education over the next six years. According to the Ministry of Education website, the number of students at vocational high schools should reach 22.5 million with 13.9 million at vocational colleges by 2015. The plan calls for reforms in curriculum design and a regional coordination system to streamline school courses. According to the proposal, by 2020 a modern vocational education system should be fully in place with world-class standards that fit Chinese society and integrated with industrial development.