Life in China’s vocational high schools can feel worlds apart from the rigorous, disciplined classrooms of the country’s elite secondary institutions. Last year, while conducting fieldwork at a secondary vocational school in the eastern Jiangxi province, I showed up to a mandatory evening “self-study” class to discover that half of the students were missing. Those who had bothered to attend sat slumped in their chairs, playing games on their phones. The sole student sitting up straight and reading his textbook stuck out like a sore thumb.
The school I visited is by no means an exception; in less developed parts of the country, that degree of low student engagement is the norm. Often overlooked, vocational high school students make up roughly 40% of the high school-age population in China — more than 16 million kids at last count. Yet the quality of education they receive is low, their schools suffer from disproportionately high drop-out rates, and their job prospects are dim.
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For policymakers, the potential benefits of improving vocational education are obvious. Since the expansion of Chinese college enrollment in 1998, the number of college students has soared, leading to a structural imbalance in China’s job market: an oversupply of college graduates combined with a serious shortage of highly skilled personnel with specialized vocational training. Industries such as manufacturing and home economics have tens of millions of vacancies, some of which are being filled by college graduates with no better options.
In an attempt to address this imbalance, the Chinese government begun to vigorously promote vocational education. This June, policymakers proposed the first major update to the country’s laws governing vocational education in 25 years. They also announced their intention to treat vocational education with the same importance as general education. Yet students and parents remain unconvinced. Many people still think that kids only end up in vocational schools because their grades are too poor to go to a proper high school — or that they’re too lazy to pursue anything else.
These attitudes miss the bigger picture. Many Chinese, including current vocational students and their families, have negative impressions of vocational education. They don’t see it as a realistic path to a better job or higher quality of life. Indeed, in the absence of state investment, vocational schools have become reliant on tuition revenues, leading many institutions to carelessly expand their class sizes, often to the detriment of education quality. Moreover, many of their teachers lack experience and qualifications in the domains they purport to specialize in. Numerous students told me that, even after two or three years of schooling, they had not yet learned anything of substance.
These problems are especially acute in China’s interior. Compared to vocational schools along the more economically developed eastern coast, which have better educational resources and a greater abundance of local employment and training opportunities, vocational schools in China’s central and western regions struggle to prepare students for future employment.
At the vocational school where I carried out my fieldwork, the students mostly came from rural backgrounds. Their parents made their living through farming, odd jobs, factory work, or running small businesses. Most students spent their time at these schools occasionally paying attention, but mostly dozing off and fooling around.
Yet this doesn’t mean they are lazy or unwilling to work. In his ethnographic study of rebellious students in a British industrial town in the 1970s, “Learning to Labor,” Paul Willis interpreted students’ negative attitudes toward school as a form of resistance to authority. In China’s vocational schools, however, students’ unwillingness to learn does not seem to be an attempt to fight the system. They have no strong will to resist their teachers or the school — and despite their lack of engagement, they still largely conform to the school’s strict schedule. Their problem isn’t defiance, but a lack of clear goals or expectations for their diploma. They dither along from one day to the next because they see no reason to do otherwise.
Even if they do study hard, they may never have the chance to apply what they learn. Some students told me that the machinery tools they study in their school workshops are completely different from those used in factories today, while others have said that the only useful takeaway from their school experience was the mandatory military training. One student explained the utility of these drills: “They make you stand up all the time, which you have to be able to do if you want to assemble things at a factory.”
Even the teachers had a poor opinion of the education they were giving their students. “The program in customer service should really provide a dedicated room for practical training, but our school simply can’t offer that, because it’d cost us so much money — maybe a million yuan, or even more,” one teacher told me. She admitted that the school can only teach students basic concepts, which the students only get to put into practice on their first day on the job. “Even then, they sometimes don’t even get taught those fundamental concepts — they just muddle their way through,” she said.
Students attend a sporting event at a secondary vocational school in Jiangxi province, December 2020. Courtesy of Wang Zijin
I found myself wondering what I would do if I were in these students’ shoes. How would I feel when I realized that my education would not provide me with relevant knowledge and skills; that none of my classmates were intent on listening and instead spent all their time on their phones; and that past classes of graduates had ended up performing the same unforgiving migrant jobs that they would’ve wound up in had they simply dropped out. What motivation would I have to do anything other than zone out and doze off — or quit?
The reality is that, although the expansion of vocational schooling has provided more young people in rural areas with access to secondary education, it hasn’t increased their chances of moving up the social ladder. Many vocational school graduates are still trapped in “low-end” jobs, their educational experience hasn’t yielded any economic returns, and their diplomas don’t grant them access to secure positions in their fields of technical expertise.
This wasn’t always the case. Until at least the early 1990s, attending a secondary vocational school was something to be proud of in China, and students were able to get enviable jobs upon graduation. What changed wasn’t so much the schools, but the disappearance of socialist class discourse and the collapse of worker power and identity. Gradually, students at secondary vocational schools — who should be recognized as vital future members of the workforce — came to be viewed with contempt and as unfit for the more respectable higher rungs of China’s educational hierarchy.
Of course, not all students who opt for vocational training do so because they didn’t score well enough in the high school entrance exam. Some students who score high enough to get admitted to a decent high school ultimately choose to attend vocational schools because their families are financially disadvantaged.
During my field research, virtually all the students I met ended up leaving the jobs the school had helped them find. Now they drift from one city to the next, experiencing the harsh reality of life as migrant laborers. It’s good that China is investing more in vocational education, but as long as the rights and interests of all workers — regardless of class or educational background — remain unequal, graduates of these institutions will continue to face an uncertain future.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Students attend a class at a secondary vocational school in Jiangxi province, December 2020. Courtesy of Wang Zijin)