In a bid to reduce the huge number of university graduates with similar academic degrees competing with each other for the same jobs, China has announced that it will turn at least half of its public universities into institutions of applied learning or polytechnics to produce more technically trained graduates.
The radical, wide-ranging move will transform the country’s higher education landscape, education experts said.
Lu Xin, a vice-minister in China’s Ministry of Education, announced the decision to turn 600 of the country’s general universities into polytechnics at a meeting of college and university leaders at the 2014 China Development Forum earlier this year.
She said that in a “gradual transition” to the dual system, the new applied institutions would focus on training engineers, senior technicians and other highly skilled workers rather than pursuing over-academic, highly theoretical studies.
“There is an urgent need to reform our current education system, which has been struggling to provide high quality talents with skills and knowledge that meet demand at the production frontline,” Lu said at the forum.
Qiang Zha, an associate professor of education at York University in Canada, said the policy amounted to a move towards a ‘binary’ higher education system of academic and applied institutions, similar to the system in Germany with its research universities and high quality technical fachhochschulen or polytechnics.
“This is a major change from a system where all higher education institutions are measured against one set of criteria,” he said.
The switch to more technical and vocational higher education “has a lot to do with the relevance of higher education. Rapid growth in universities caused many programmes that were not very relevant” to be offered, Qiang told University World News, adding that the polytechnics would help reduce the unemployment rate among university graduates.
Although the government has concentrated on boosting science and technology degrees in recent years, where there is more job market demand, research has shown that students have little inclination to study the sciences, even if they are useful.
According to a report released at the end of May by the China Youth and Children Research Centre, or CYCRC, in Beijing, only around 30% of high school students surveyed said they would be willing to study science, engineering or medicine at university.
“Science related jobs are less attractive for Chinese youth compared with those more economically promising ones such as managerial positions in enterprises,” said Sun Hongyan, director of the CYCRC’s childhood research institute, quoted by official media.
But the preference of students and their families for humanities and management degrees has led to a glut that cannot be absorbed by the jobs market.
This year a record 7.26 million students will graduate from China’s universities, with unemployment levels running at around 15%.
The government fears that with such high levels of unemployment, particularly experienced by graduates from newer universities, “there is potential for instability caused by a backlash by parents and students from the new universities”, Qiang said.
Some 80% of higher vocational school graduates last year found jobs, while only around two-thirds of college graduates found work within six months or a year after graduation, according to a report from the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing.
Vocational college graduates also had a slightly higher average starting salary compared to graduates from China’s top 100 universities.
Who will switch?
Although the list of universities to be converted has not been made public, likely candidates will be universities created during and after the 1990s, when hundreds of new local universities emerged as higher education enrolment rocketed, Qiang said.
“Their graduates often lost out against peers from the older universities on institutional reputation and programme quality, so many of them now seek to transform their curricular and programme offerings and are keen to label themselves as fachhochschule – universities of applied sciences,” he said.
While some institutions will convert willingly, others may be more reluctant.
The announcement has caused a stir among university heads, with many unsure whether their institutions might be among those slated to become polytechnics, with an accompanying possible downgrading of their status as university professors, according to academics who declined to be named.
Xiong Bingqi, associate dean of research at the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, said the overall strategy of turning universities into vocationally oriented institutions was the right approach but the change had to be properly handled.
Compulsory restructuring imposed on institutions may not be appropriate, he said.
Many institutions had already changed once, under government decree, from vocational colleges to increase the number of quality academic institutions – but reversing the process could be fraught with problems.
“Many institutions may not be ready for the transition,” Xiong said.
The government has said pilot programmes will be launched this year, with 150 universities already signing up for the plan, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Vocational entrance exam
Separately, the government had already announced reforms to the national college entrance exams, the gaokao, with a new option from this year to take a vocational-technical exam rather than the well known academic exam that determines university entry.
Approved by the State Council – China’s cabinet – in February, the vocational gaokao was described as a pilot when it was held for the first time alongside the traditional gaokao on 7-8 June 2014.
Previously some 40,000 vocational institutions set their own entrance exams with lower academic requirements than the gaokao but with aptitude tests related to the courses offered.
“We want students who are interested in our courses and talented in the field, not those who simply score low in the national exam,” said Lao Hansheng, president of Guangdong Engineering Polytechnic in southern China, quoted by official media.
Separating the gaokao into two tracks will pave the way for recruitment for the new dual-track higher education system, academics said. A high quality vocational gaokao will ensure that students who follow that track are not seen as second rate compared to their academic peers.