Caixin Column 11: The Problem with Vocational Education


This article is part of a 12-part Caixin Magazine column series by REAP co-directors Linxiu Zhang and Scott Rozelle. Read the full series here.


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China’s vocational education is training technical workers for skills that will soon no longer be needed.

About ten years ago, policymakers universally agreed on “China’s shortage of skilled workers,” and China invested a large amount of money into vocational education and training. 

The government decided that not only did academic high schools need to expand recruitment, but that a new brand of vocational education should also be spread across the country. The goal was to allow half of students graduating from middle school to enroll in vocational schools and become the skilled workers that enterprises need.
Policymakers believe this is already benefitting students, as well as factories and enterprises within China. Therefore, China successively invested several hundred billion dollars in the program.
However, we think this was not a wise choice. 
We believe that the vocational education and training system is the least effective component within China’s education system. Even if China’s vocational schools could do as well as those in Germany, the current plan for sustaining and expanding vocational education has many flaws. In many places in China, vocational education and training is simply pulling China’s development into decline. 
Most importantly, the goal behind China’s push to develop vocational education is fundamentally flawed. 
Recently, Harvard University’s William Peterson and Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek published a book emphasizing that many countries, including China and the US, all fall prey to the same errors. For these countries, the goal of education is present advancement or short-term economic development. In contrast, Peterson and Hanushek believe that the purpose of developing education should be to advance economic development in 20 years and to prepare students to work 20 years in the future. 
These two scholars point out that countries that have successful education systems are not those countries that vigorously prepare technical workers for today’s economy, but those countries that foresee the economic picture as it will be in 2030.  
This does not mean that all vocational education and training systems suffer from myopia. Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands all have very successful vocational education and a large number of vocational schools. 
However, the vocational education systems in Germany and China have fundamental differences. The Germans have known for decades that the role of vocational education is not to develop skilled workers trained for special jobs. Their vocational education system was designed so that students could meet success in the future in a number of areas. Therefore, students are required to comprehensively study many subjects, including math, science, Chinese, integrated circuitry, etc. Most of the jobs that were crucial to the economy 20 years ago no longer exist. Everything changes quickly, thus “learning mastery” is more important than learning a single skill that may change in a short time from being considered specialized to vanishing as a job altogether. 
As a result, students at Germany’s vocational schools spend 80% of their time learning comprehensive knowledge and skills. German vocational schools don’t just teach students specialized skills so that they can immediately go out and find a technical job. Students have a strong grounding in basic skills, ensuring that they can continuously learn. 
Compared to Germany’s vocational students, who spend 20% of their time learning “specialized” knowledge, China’s vocational students spend essentially all of their time learning specific skills. Therefore, when China’s vocational students intern, they do nothing more than repeatedly practice the specific skill they have learned. While Germany’s vocational education system is training human capital for the future, China’s vocational education is training skilled workers for requirements that will soon fade away.  

However, new research shows that even farsighted vocational education is still inferior to attending academic high school everyday.  

Another article written by Hanushek and others points out that there are major differences in the long-term labor market between most countries that accept students into vocational education (i.e. Germamy and Denmark) and those countries that require practically every student to attend academic high school (i.e. the US, France, and Canada). The unemployment rate, retirement age, and income for older-age workers in Germany and Denmark are higher, earlier, and lower, respectively, than those in the US, France, and Canada. The most rational reason for this is that workers in Germany and Denmark are not learning enough in vocational school, which impacts their ability to adapt and learn new skills. This in turn influences their ability to take on new work.
Considering Germany and Denmark’s combined experience, we can see that even with the best vocational education, the labor market performance of workers graduating from vocational schools is still inferior to that of those with an academic high school education. 
In other words, the lesson is the same: what workers need most from education is to develop a solid comprehensive foundation of fundamental skills; otherwise, it will be difficult to adapt and learn new knowledge. In China, education is wrongly treated as part of the economic plan. It is our assessment that China’s government should evaluate the current goals and scope of vocational education and training; otherwise, the pernicious effects of inappropriate policies will be felt in the not so distant future.   


About this series:

REAP co-directors Scott Rozelle and Linxiu Zhang wrote a ten-part series for Caixin Magazine titled, "Inequality 2030: Glimmering Hope in China in a Future Facing Extreme Despair." See below for more columns in this series:

> Column 1: Why We Need to Worry About Inequality

> Column 2: China's Inequality Starts During the First 1,000 Days

> Column 3: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 1)

> Column 4: Behind Before They Start - The Preschool Years (Part 2) 

> Column 5: How to Cure China's Largest Epidemic

Column 6: A Tale of Two Travesties

>Columns 7 & 8: China's Widest Divide

> Column 9: China's Most Vulnerable Children

> Column 10: Why Drop Out?

> Column 11: The Problem with Vocational Education

> Column 12: Reforming China's Vocational Schools (in Chinese)