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    Vocational education in counties key to rural revitalization

    Author  :  TANG ZHIBIN and SHAN YING     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-04-19

    Nearly half of China’s secondary vocational schools are distributed in counties, constituting the substructure of the modern Chinese vocational education system. As the national strategy of rural revitalization is being implemented in growing depth and the development of counties has entered a new stage, improving vocational education within counties to attract, cultivate, and retain talent for rural revitalization is practical to serving the national strategy and also foundational to consolidating the modern vocational education system and further modernizing the system.

    Vital to rural revitalization

    At present, the modernization of agriculture and rural areas has completely ushered in a new era. In terms of agricultural development, invigorating agriculture through quality enhancement and green development, and building agricultural strength through branding have become basic trends. “Internet plus modern agriculture” and “smart agriculture” have created new forms of agriculture. A deep integration of primary, secondary, and tertiary industries has accelerated. Agriculture will be upgraded in all links with added value along the whole industrial chain. In the future, more disruptive technological innovations will be achieved, and technologies from biology, the digital field, and equipment will be increasingly promoted and applied to agriculture, which requires higher-caliber practitioners.

    However, China still has a long way to go in the modernization of rural areas. Take rural people’s education level as an example. According to a recent sample survey carried out by China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the average education level of rural residents was less than eight years of school. Among farmers, graduates with an elementary or junior high school education level accounted for more than 70%, and less than 10% participated in practical skill training every year. Only 3.7% of the surveyed farmers received skill training for more than one year.

    The 11th Chinese civic scientific literacy survey, which was conducted in 2020, also revealed that rural residents had a scientific literacy level 7.3 percentage points lower than their urban counterparts. 75% of farmers reported an interest in receiving vocational education in agriculture. The new generation of farmers, in particular, expressed a shared hope to become a new type of professional farmers through high-level, targeted vocational education and training.

    Developing high-quality vocational education within counties can provide farmers with training on modern industrial techniques, entrepreneurial abilities, and service skills. Related programs are conducive to optimizing their science-based thinking pattern and modern values, and to cultivating talent for working at the primary level, who highly identify with rural culture, take an active part in major national strategies, and strive to contribute to overall rural development. These programs will also empower rural revitalization with quality vocational education resources and provide an answer to the question of “who should revitalize the countryside.”

    The high-quality development of vocational education in counties is the “educational measure” of success for rural revitalization and a source of confidence in the countryside. In counties, vocational education takes pride in serving rural areas. The basic orientations of being based on counties and close to the countryside, and serving farmers demonstrate its distinctive advantages, realistic functions, and school-running characteristics.

    Through the high-quality development of vocational education countywide, rural development will be furnished with quality educational resources to effectively bolster the high-quality development of the rural economy and society. As such, rural residents’ needs for a better life will be met, and students in counties will have diverse channels to grow into talent, evidencing the educational accomplishment in rural revitalization across the board.

    Major problems

    In recent years, most counties have played a significant role in China’s urbanization drive. However, scholars found that soaring urbanization rates were inseparable from the boost given by bank or financial capital. Urbanization projects have emerged as the new mechanism that powers the growth of counties, while real estate has replaced traditional industry-related sectors, represented by rural enterprises, as the leading economic force driving the urbanization of counties.

    The real estate industry’s capacity to absorb skilled talent is rather limited. Meanwhile, real estate development has increased industrial production costs to some extent. Not only is the development space for traditional industry restricted, but traditional industry may even have to make way for the development of the real estate sector.

    The excessive focus on real estate development has resulted in the relative underdevelopment of industry within counties. Small size, low technical levels, and inadequate capacity for sustainable development of enterprises make it difficult to effectively support and develop local vocational education in an integrative fashion. Additionally, resource constraints are serious. As the development of counties doesn’t depend on high-level technical skills or high-quality human resources, it is hard to accurately position vocational education within the regional structure.

    Second, higher education has been popularized in China. In particular, the Chinese Vocational Education Law stresses the need to advance the coordinated development of vocational education and regular education at different stages after compulsory education based on local conditions. These have taken a toll on vocational education’s basic aim — to cultivate high-caliber skilled laborers.

    Some researchers have discovered that secondary vocational education has been oriented toward the college entrance examination. Most students in vocational schools end up receiving education of a higher level, and undergraduate enrollment is key for secondary vocational schools to attract students. This worrying situation is particularly prominent in counties.

    At the same time, gig employment, which emerges from digitalization and the internet-based platform economy, has revolutionized the employment model. While the new employment model “siphons” talent from traditional industries, general special skills developed during secondary vocational education will be increasingly uncompetitive and replaceable in the future. Transferrable skills and comprehensive qualities are becoming more important. Changing production models, as a result of artificial intelligence development, are in the same talent demand. Educational pressure arising from changes to skill and quality demands has transmitted to vocational education in counties, raising doubts about the function of secondary vocational education.

    The third notable problem is longstanding structural defects within the vocational education system, which are manifested in inconspicuous improvements of closed school-running philosophies, fiscal restraints, and residents’ bias against secondary vocational education, as well as in worse student sources, worse teacher resources, and worse classroom teaching and practical training quality.

    With respect to the source of students, many extreme cases of academic failure among rural students, which were witnessed in field surveys, underscore problems caused jointly by the absence of family education among “left-behind” children, childrearing by grandparents, the spread of new theories that champion the uselessness of study, an infiltration of video games, and severely imbalanced basic education in the countryside.

    Some students’ struggles with a weak academic foundation, unsatisfactory learning abilities, and undesired learning attitude erupted during the secondary vocational education stage and affected social evaluation of vocational schools, restricting the schools’ talent cultivation quality, and hindering the development of vocational education in counties. These are also triggers for structural defects.

    Suggestions

    To solve the above problems, efforts are first needed to construct a new order for the development of vocational education within counties. It is necessary to understand county-level vocational education’s great significance to, and critical function in, adjusting educational structure, building the modern vocational education system, promoting human capital accumulation, and advancing rural revitalization and common prosperity for all. Attention should be paid to its spillover and multiplier effects.

    Vocational education in counties is essential to intensifying the accumulation and improvement of rural human capital and enhancing the supply of educational resources. On the basis of continuously improving the quality of compulsory education in rural areas, the scale and intensity of vocational education should be increased countywide to bring the universalization rate of senior secondary education and vocational education among the rural school-age population to 80% and above by 2035. In the meantime, the average schooling years and skill training frequency should be raised to reduce weaknesses and lay a solid foundation for Chinese education to enter the world education center.

    While entrenching the foundation of secondary vocational education in the modern vocational education system, importance should be attached to developing a five-year school-running system covering secondary and higher vocational education in counties. It is advisable to strengthen cooperation between higher vocational colleges and institutions of higher learning in cities and secondary vocational schools in counties to expand pathways for county-level vocational education and open up a larger space for its development.

    Second, emphasis should be placed on building skill-oriented villages to facilitate the high-quality development of vocational education in counties. We should seize strategic opportunities presented by the national push to build a skill-oriented society, to instill skill training into rural industries, economy, and society, as well as the lives of residents in county seats and villages. The aim is to construct a county-level vocational education system which is oriented towards the development of counties, runs through the full life cycle of rural people, and serves the whole industrial chain within counties, thus forging a skill-oriented rural society where skills are valued, and everyone learns and is equipped with skills.

    Third, efforts should be made to strengthen institutional supply to unleash policy dividends from the innovative development of vocational education in counties. In recent years, remarkable progress has been achieved in China’s vocational education, as the modern vocational education system has taken initial shape, and higher vocational education has fostered its own characteristics and entered the sustainable development stage. However, secondary vocational education is still struggling to develop amid doubts, particularly vocational education in counties. In the context of rural revitalization, institutional reforms should be initiated to optimize vocational education’s development structure and upgrade its factors, hence forming a governance model in line with the high-quality development of vocational education in counties.

     

    Tang Zhibin is a professor from the Institute of Vocational Education at Hunan Normal University. Shan Ying is an associate research fellow from the Hunan Academy of Education Sciences.

    Editor: Yu Hui

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