Enrollment is falling fast at private vocational colleges in China. As student numbers fall, it has become difficult to guarantee quantity and quality of teaching.
Photo by Kuang Da
By CHEN Zhenfang, ZHANG Xun
China's private technical colleges are struggling as roll calls dwindle and schools close around the country.
The entire vocational education system is running into difficulties, but enrollment is falling fast at private vocational colleges compared to public colleges. With student numbers falling, it has become more difficult to guarantee both the quantity and quality of students.
The number of secondary vocational schools in China fell by 3,000 from 2012 to 2022, with 2.5 million students lost. The number of higher vocational colleges increased in the same period, but only by 200.
Unreasonable expectations are the main obstacle these colleges face. For many decades, parents and students were delighted at the prospect of an electrician or crane driver in the family, but aspirations have changed.
ZHANG Huimin, a teacher at a vocational school in Hunan Province, pointed out that there is a common bias among parents against vocational education, believing that their children can only prosper if they enter university.
In Zhang's view, vocational schools face three problems: student development, barriers to further education, and a shortage of teachers.
In practice, students trained in vocational schools often struggle to meet the national technical requirements.
Options for vocational school graduates to take the college entrance exam are also limited. Students can only apply to universities that are willing to allocate slots for vocational school students. In 2022, Hunan planned to admit less than 4,000 undergraduates from vocational schools. There are more than 1.5 million undergraduates in the province.
Then, there is a shortage of teachers. “The staff situation at vocational schools is quite chaotic, and in recent years, many students have been enrolled for courses that face a shortage of teachers,” said Zhang.
Although each school may have a couple of hundred on the teaching staff, the majority are support staff, and there are very few teachers who can actually teach in the classroom.
Expensive and not very good
According to SUN Yunli, dean of a Shanghai polytechnic, there are several reasons for the difficulty in enrolling students in private higher vocational schools.
Private schools generally have a lower reputation and higher fees than public institutions, sometimes three or four times more. Tuition at public colleges in Shanghai runs to as much as 7,000 yuan (US$1,000) in some cases, while Sun's college charges 20,000 yuan.
There is often a shortage of slots in students' local areas. Some provinces have plenty of potential students, but no way to accommodate them. Recruiting students from distant regions is challenging.
These are not well-known institutions with any kind of national presence. Much like any technical college anywhere, they are local outfits, serving unremarkable needs. And the marketplace, the potential students, are basically rural high-school kids. Or at least their parents, who want their offspring to go to Harvard, not become municipal gardeners.
Compared to public schools, private higher vocational schools have weaker educational foundations, lag behind in development, face financial pressure, charge higher tuition fees, and struggle to meet their enrollment targets. Perhaps their time is up.
Vocational education in China primarily is employment-oriented. Recent data indicates 21.3 percent unemployment in the 16-24 age group, the highest in years. High school graduates are at the sharp end of that. A “blue-collar/white-collar” debate sees many opting for lower-paying office jobs over potentially higher-paying manual labor.
Blue-collar workers, particularly in manufacturing, construction, and services, are in high demand, but vocational schools struggle to supply enough graduates.
To bridge this gap, vocational schools are adjusting their programs to meet demand, but it's a slow process, especially with regard to faculty. Programs related to new energy vehicles are gaining popularity, but it is hard to find anyone who is sufficiently expert and affordable.
Secondary students are increasingly opting for further studies rather than immediate employment. The shift highlights the challenges many young workers face in matching their skills with available jobs.
More education may not guarantee more opportunities, but it certainly delays difficult choices for a few years in the hope of better opportunities to come.