China acts to stem glut of uni graduates

China acts to stem glut of uni graduates

Straits Times, 7 April 2014

PRE-SCHOOL teacher Wu Zheng enjoys working with kids though she has some regrets about never having gone to university.

Wanting to enter the workforce early after junior high school, and fearing that she could not pass the national college entrance examination, or gaokao, she went to a vocational high school instead.

From there, Ms Wu, now 23, went on to a vocational college before taking up a 2,000 yuan (S$405) a month job teaching at a Beijing kindergarten last September.

“I’m relieved I have a job that I love, though I feel if I had gone to a university, I would have a different personality as a graduate,” she told The Straits Times.

China is hoping many more students will soon follow Ms Wu’s path, and plans to roll out a series of changes that will elevate and improve vocational education, long the less-prestigious sibling of a university degree.

The changes come at a time when there are too many jobless university graduates and not enough skilled workers.

After more than a decade of letting its universities and graduate numbers mushroom, China is now seeking to turn 600 universities into higher-education vocational colleges, which are also known as da zhuan.

It also plans to tweak gaokao – which is now open only to high school graduates – by opening it to students from vocational high schools and testing them more on their technical skills than academics.

Both policy amendments were revealed late last month by Vice-Minister for Education Lu Xin, though she did not give a timeline for rolling them out.

The changes are part of a “modern vocational education programme” approved in late February at the State Council meeting helmed by Premier Li Keqiang.

“I have been calling for a cutback on the number of white-collar job-seekers and an increase in the pool of blue-collar workers that the workforce sorely needs,” Renmin University labour expert Liu Erduo told The Straits Times.

A survey by China’s Labour Ministry showed that in the middle of last year, there were 100 job applicants for every 80 white-collar jobs. For blue-collar positions, the results were reversed; there were only 100 applicants for every 125 openings.

A key reason for the white-collar glut and blue-collar shortfall, analysts say, is the unfettered expansion of universities since 1999. That year, China had 848,000 graduates from 1,071 universities, of which 474 were vocational colleges and 597 normal universities, known as benke yuanxiao.

In 2012, the number grew to 6.2 million graduates from some 2,400 universities, of which 1,300 were vocational colleges and 1,100 normal universities.

The expansion of university spots led many students to pursue senior high, instead of vocational high school like Ms Wu did, causing the number of such schools to plummet.

The number of vocational high schools fell from 9,636 in 1999 to 4,500 in 2012.

Professor Liu said the shift came at the expense of the workforce. “Our tertiary education sector is at the level of developed nations but our labour force is still at the developing nations’ phase, which requires more blue-collar workers,” he said.

The blue-collar worker shortage explains why their employment rate of around 96 per cent in recent years has far exceeded that of 65 per cent for university graduates.

Observers say the hope is that the two policy changes revealed by Ms Lu would do the trick.

First, China wants to entice more students towards vocational education by allowing them to sit the gaokao that will allow them to enter vocational colleges.

China also plans to raise the skill level of its workforce, by getting them to pick up skills at an early age, said Prof Liu.

A survey of 46 million blue-collared workers showed that nearly 90 per cent belong to the low- to mid-skilled categories, compared to about 65 per cent in developed countries.

Prof Liu said the government should beef up cooperation between schools and enterprises to ensure a better match between the skill supply and demand.

“It is also important to look at fostering a culture of continuing education among workers, like in Singapore,” he added.

Columnist Li Hongbing wrote on March 27 in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, that the increased emphasis on vocational education would raise again the societal status of the “worker” or gong ren in Mandarin to what it was in China’s early industrial era.

The biggest obstacle, observers say, is overcoming the mindset in society that places a premium on university graduates.

Take for instance Madam Zhu Yan, whose son is in junior high in north-eastern Liaoning’s Fushun city.

She hopes that he would go the conventional route – to a university, not a vocational school.

While vocational graduates find it easier to land jobs, their pay is lower than that of university graduates and only a few can command high pay, she said.

“Also, there is a difference in the quality of university graduates and those from vocational schools,” Madam Zhu told The Straits Times.

“I hope my son would go to university and become someone with more grace and polish.”

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