Time to reaffirm vocational schools' role in addressing current needs
During the summer break, when many college students are scrambling to find internships that will impress future employers or admissions officers, some vocational school students were enjoying themselves with village children in Fengyuan Village, Zhuji, Zhejiang Province.
Twenty students (and two teachers) from Shaoxing Vocational and Technical College taught dozens of village children music, painting, and handicrafts during the holidays, delighting the kids and reassuring their parents, some of whom working far from home.
Even though the volunteering students were housed in three rooms above the village canteen, it was a fulfilling experience for them. All of them are specializing in pre-school education.
These practical engagements put their instructional abilities to the test. The school was on the slope of a verdant hill, upstream of the Fengxijiang River. The surrounding landscape was breathtaking. The province has certified the place as a "3A Scenic Area Village" and "A Future Village."
Even though they were far from the maddening crowd, the students were not immune to the pervasive social anxiety about diplomas.
According to one of the volunteers, 19-year-old Jiao Yueyue, roughly half of the 20 students on the team were preparing for the matriculation exam in the hopes of gaining admission to another institution for a two-year program that will grant them a regular college degree, or benke.
A college degree is likely just the beginning for more enterprising individuals. They would be motivated by a relentless drive to compete for the next degree. I have heard of fresh college recruits beginning to prepare for MA program tests during their first winter holiday.
Vocational schools are under pressure to upgrade.
According to a recent state circular, at least 10 percent of vocational colleges should qualify as providers of ordinary college courses (benke) rather than only professional training by the year 2025. There are already 33 vocational colleges that can award regular college degrees.
This has triggered a run for the top 10 percent of peer schools, as they actively recalibrate themselves against the new metrics by growing the size of their campus, raising the academic reputation of their faculty, or reducing the number of admissions.
However, as Lin Yu, a Ministry of Education official, cautioned recently, "Under no circumstances should this ten percent target be allowed to derail the development of the 90 percent."
Lin remarked that it is vital for vocational colleges to precisely identify the niche of their talent cultivation in view of the needs of a specific industry or post, regardless of the pervasive rush for higher academic credentials.
Vocational colleges should play an exemplary role in industry-teaching alignment because the rationale for a vocational specialization is based on a specific job or industry from the start, while a regular college specialty is based on a certain academic topic.
In a recent interview, Kang Weixun, a seasoned vocational school instructor in Lianyungang, alluded to the difficulties the vocational institutions were facing. Kang observed that with academic degrees so valued, there appears to be little choice but for vocational education to be co-opted into general education.
But, what are we looking for in a village kindergarten teacher in Fengyuan? Are you looking for qualities like patience, dedication, a love for the job, or a careerist with a fancy degree in the workplace?
(Zhao Yang and Tang Liangjia, MA candidates in international journalism at Shanghai International Studies University, contributed to the article.)