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Jennifer Craw
by Jennifer Craw

This month CIEB released an important new report, Made In China: Challenge and Innovation in China’s Vocational Education and Training System, which includes the findings from dozens of interviews with Chinese government, business and education leaders and visits to vocational schools and colleges in China. The report, authored by Vivien Stewart of Asia Society, examines where the skills came from to power the economic transformation of the last thirty years. It finds that, despite the astounding progress made, substantial challenges confront Chinese policy makers as they consider how to develop the higher level of skills and productivity needed to support China’s continued economic growth. The report contends that one would be ill advised to underestimate a country that has more than once achieved no less daunting goals in education since China was opened to foreign investment in 1978. In this Statistic of the Month we look at one such goal: the growth of higher education participation in China.

After Mao’s Cultural Revolution closed China’s universities in the 1960s and sent educated people to the countryside to be “re-educated,” the country’s rate of college-educated workers plummeted. Even today, when compared to the United States, the percent of Chinese students enrolled in tertiary education is quite small.


However, over the past twenty years, China has been increasing participation in tertiary education at an impressive rate. When the percentages above are expressed as raw numbers, we see that not only does China have more students in tertiary education than the U.S., but the rate of increase in enrollment continues to skyrocket as enrollment rates in the U.S. flatline: In the 1990s China had fewer than a million students in tertiary education; by 2011 that number had increased to more than 30 million.


Despite this dramatic increase in tertiary enrollment, China still suffers from a lack of skilled workers, a critical problem if China hopes to transform its economy from one built on low-cost, low-skill exports to an economic model based on services, innovation, and consumer demand. More than three fourths of China’s workforce is unskilled, while less than 5 percent are highly skilled workers.


One solution to this skills gap is to strengthen the vocational education and training (VET) system. To do this, China will need to evaluate and adapt the structure, organization and scale of its current VET system—the largest such system in the world. CIEB’s latest report offers analysis of the challenges facing the Chinese VET system and recommendations for improving and scaling up that system. Click here to access key findings, an executive summary, and the full report from CIEB.