The original intentions and limitations of the vocational school channelling system in China: Analysis from both the economic and the educational perspective

Written by: Haoyu Jin (GCS Research Analyst)

Key words: Vocational education, vocational school channelling, education in China, educational economics, philosophy of education.

Abstract: This article briefly introduced the current system of vocational education in China with an appreciative recognition of its benign effects and intentions. Then, the article points out and discusses the limitations and even potential detriments of the current system to the attending students, particularly in terms of inequality, the students’ right to choose, and the narrowing down of future career options. Towards the end, the article delineated several possible interventions that could potentially be implemented on both the national and local level to help combat these challenges, which included programs focusing on financial support, career consulting, and social and cultural integration.


Vocational education, as opposed to academic or liberal education, is arguably the most ancient form of education, which could be traced back to the passing down of hunting and gathering skills in primitive societies. Vocational education is characterized by its explicit utilitarian function for the purposes of survival, production, and reproduction (Hager and Hyland, 2003). It usually involves learning through direct participation on specific works, such as learning ‘on the job’ or apprenticeship (Coffey, 1992, p. 11). Vocational education, however, has historically been associated with social class with the elites having the leisure to conduct academic and general learning while the mass and especially working-class people being compelled to vocational training in order to survive (Lewis, 1991; Schofield, 1972).

The contemporary form of the vocational school system has existed in China for over twenty years. It is a system which may seem peculiar to many western spectators but are very familiar to Chinese families and students. Put simply, the vocational school is an alternative route to obtaining a secondary and higher education diploma without attending regular high schools and universities that are based mostly on academic learning and liberal curriculum. The current Chinese vocational school system is a well-developed and comprehensive educational infrastructure with teachers qualified through a rigorous and standardized process of training and testing (Yi et al., 2013); and offers not only occupational and technical training but also the options for attending athletic and art schools which grant diplomas of similar nature.

In China, vocational schools are divided into two levels: secondary vocational school (which accepts middle school graduates as an alternative to regular high school) and post-secondary vocational school, or junior college (which accepts secondary school graduates as an alternative to academic-centred universities). The difference between these two levels is mostly in the age of the attending students. Meanwhile, the nature of secondary and post-secondary vocational schools is similar in that they both seek to open the window to early vocational training for students who might not be fit to participate in academic-centred learning. It is hoped that such vocational training would grant these students advantages in the labour market and promote their social mobility even without a degree from a regular high school or university.

It may be too cynical to question the benevolence of the intentions behind the establishment of such a system; however, it is far from unreasonable to point out the limitations and even potential detriment of its effect on the students under the current socio-economic environment. A discussion on this topic may help to paint a clearer picture of the current Chinese vocational school system and reveal the problems hindering the career prospects of its graduates. Aside from the economic utility of vocational schools, the channelling process itself also deserves critical examinations in terms of the nature of education and the ethics concerning children and choice.

The benign principles underlying the current vocational school system

       The basic intentions of the current vocational school system in China could be deduced from the documents released by the nation’s Ministry of Education (CSC, 2005; MOE, 2022). To summarize, the vocational school system aims to:

  1. Grant valuable occupational skills to its students so that they could participate in the labour market.
  2. To promote national development by cultivating valuable labour and technical skills in the nation’s youth.
  3. To provide opportunities for comparatively disadvantaged students to achieve social mobility and their life aspirations.
  4. To serve as a platform for students to achieve a regular university degree (to move from vocational to academic education).

Judging by themselves, these aims are sensible both from the perspective of individuals obtaining personal benefits from vocational education and from the perspective of the nation’s plan to grow both economically and technologically. Firstly, it makes sense that one of the main purposes of education, especially formal schooling, is to ‘prepare young people for the world of work’ (Curren, 2007, p. 11). Education, in other words, should be of utility to the individuals receiving it. Since its inception, vocational education, as a significant component of the Chinese education system, has promised the potential for social mobility and financial reward (Wei et al., 1999). Moreover, it is almost an official doctrine in Chinese academia that education should aim to both socialize and individualize the children, while fulfilling the needs of both the society and the individual (Tang, 1993).

The reality, however, is that differing aims of education sometimes do run into conflict with each other – the idea of ‘false dichotomies’ (Dewey, 1938) in education often is not so ‘false’ as to lose its conceptual and practical value. The current Chinese society, for example, consists of a mix of neoliberal ideology in the market, centralized state control in its overall politico-economic landscape, and a public morality that advocates for a sort of harmonious collectivism (Bell, 2016; Hansen, 2013). With the prevalence of political or patriotic education, the neoliberal culture of the market alone does not allow for true individualism but an individualism that stresses personal responsibility while also being entangled into the grander state agenda to contribute to the collective growth of the nation (Pun and Koo, 2019). Similarly, conflicts of values exists among vocational school students who are embedded in a sub-culture that stresses the nobility and importance of manual labour and craftsmanship that is situated in a wider culture that seeks to promote entrepreneurial spirit in post-secondary school students (Hansen, 2013); and among the governmental agenda of social and economic development and the aspirations of the individual students, and the expectations of their families (Kipnis, 2011; Pun and Koo, 2019). Therefore, the limitations of the vocational school system in China, notwithstanding its many benefits to the individuals and the society, is worth discussing.

The limitations and potential detriments of vocational school channelling

       Inequality and class reproduction

The original intention of the vocational school system to promote social mobility in students of disadvantaged backgrounds appears to be more of an intention than a reality. Firstly, it is important to recognize that the vocational school system does have the capacity to provide for some disadvantaged students the opportunity to rise above their economic difficulties; and should the purpose of schooling be the advancement of a portion of the student population, then the vocational school system definitely has its merits. However, it does not seem to be a coincidence that students attending vocational school are often those who have a migrant status in the household registration system (hukou), come from working-class family background, or both, which limit their capacity to attend local schools of higher quality, and, later, universities (Ling, 2015; Pun and Koo, 2019). It is often perceived by the public that students who were channelled from the regular high school and university system to the vocational system because they are naturally less capable of conducting academic learning or otherwise lack the sufficient effort to do so – ‘bad students go to vocational schools’ (Ling, 2015). It may equally be the case, however, that many vocational school students unwillingly chose this alternative because they lacked the proper resources or equal opportunity to be able to compete on a national (or even regional level) with students who are born in larger cities and who have had access to educational resources of higher quality.

Prominent sociologist Bourdieu (1979/2010) famously used the concepts of social and cultural capital to point out the occurrences of class reproduction and the reinforcement of socio-economic inequality are not solely based on the Marxist conception of capital which denotes material or financial resources individuals possess. To explain in brevity, social capital is the usable connections an individual has in the society to aid him or her in efforts to accomplish certain goals. Connection to people with valuable information or with the decision-making power in certain governmental departments are examples of social capital. Cultural capital, similarly, denotes the resource one has in his or her environment to engage with a diversity of cultures and elements of the mainstream culture. Being able to regularly visit museums and attend sports training are examples of cultural capitals. Social, cultural and economic capital are interrelated and could reinforce each other – for someone who has economic capital is also more likely to be able to obtain more social and cultural capital, and vice versa. The reproduction of class identity and status due to inequalities of social and cultural capital at different people’s disposal also have an impact on education and the reproduction of class culture (Bourdieu and Passerson, 1970), which, in the context of China, could also include the reproduction of the local culture – developed cities gets more developed, lagging cities gets more lagged.

To apply these concepts to the analysis of the Chinese vocational school system, since most vocational school students come from similar backgrounds, the culture of these schools and the public perception of them largely reflect rural and working-class features (Pun and Koo, 2019) which tend to be perceived as lower in value and dignity (Li, 2015) – often even by the rural and working-class populations themselves. The students are thus limited in their opportunities to engage with the wider society, especially with institutions and individuals that may facilitate their social mobility. The cultural reproduction in vocational schools, therefore, contributes to the social reproduction of class identity and status of the disadvantaged students.

The students’ capacity and right to choose

From the perspective of ethics, it is a logically suspicious claim that the students should be given the right to choose their academic and career paths to opt for an alternative route of schooling that is – at least in the current environment – socially inferior to the regular route of academic learning. This issue may not be as palpable for high school graduates choosing to attend vocational college rather than a regular university, as they have most likely reached the age of 18 – the legal age for autonomous adulthood. For the middle school graduates given the choice between secondary vocational school and high school, however, the problem becomes apparent. Middle school graduates in the Chinese educational systems are normally under 16, who do not have the right to choose to engage in labour contracts or enter a marriage precisely because they are assumed to lack the mental maturity to make such decisions. Why then, should they be given the right to make decisions about their future academic and career paths? Levinson (1999), for example, argues that children should be provided with an extensive liberal (rather than vocational) education before they can become mentally mature enough to make autonomous decisions to pursue more specific areas of interest. Choices made by children, in other words, might not be in their best interest. A case in point for this argument is the unintended consequences of the pre-graduation internship programs provided by the vocational school system which are intended to enhance the students’ career prospect by providing them with platforms to gain real life experience, but often turn into opportunities for corporations and factories to obtain cheap (often free) labour while not providing the students with experience with sufficient quality and diversity to aid in their future job-hunting process (Pun and Koo, 2019).

We do not presume here to have the answer for this ethical dilemma, but simply to raise questions about the consistency of the governing logic.

The opening up and narrowing down of options

 It is famously argued by Feinberg (2007) that one of the main purposes of education and an education system is to provide for the children as many potential choices as possible and leave the decision-making to the children who are treated as free agents – giving children an ‘open future’. Theoretically, the existence of the vocational school system serves this function: rather than the only option of academic learning until high school or university, vocational school channelling opens up more occupational options for the students to choose from. The assumption that more options mean better education is sternly challenged by Mills (2003), who contends that ‘the pursuit of an open future for our children is confused, impossible and often pernicious’ (p. 508). Children experiencing physical and psychological development often require frameworks within which they could safely and meaningfully operate; they need both autonomy and externally imposed structures. Allowing children to choose their academic and career paths prematurely may limit, rather than expand, their future options.

The choice of vocational school at a relatively early age (especially at the age of newly graduated middle school students), for example, could incur the loss of future options to pursue career paths that could best arouse the students’ interest and facilitate their endeavours toward social mobility. Early efforts by Willis (1977; 1981) to examine the effects of vocational education revealed the contradiction of an education intended to promote social mobility of disadvantaged students by focusing on the development of labour skills could also foster the growth and permeation of a culture that prioritizes hard labour at the cost of other potential prospects such as leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurial qualities. In the context of contemporary China, vocational school diplomas tend to limit the holders’ options in the Chinese labour market to find jobs that are not purely manual and ‘inhumane’ (Pun and Koo, 2019, p. 54), while not being much of help for applying for high-skilled and socially respected jobs with higher pays. As Hager and Hyland (2003) caustically pointed out: ‘general education appears to be more vocational than vocational education (p. 274).’ Likely for this reason, many rural and working-class students (and their parents) do not aspire to manual labour jobs but are attracted by the prospect of a more middle-class life undergirded by residence in larger cities and jobs in occupations with higher pay and social status (Pun and Koo, 2019). The vocational school system, however, tends to not be able to support such aspirations both due to its questionable educational quality (Yi et al., 2013) and the nature of its diploma.

Possible interventions to aid vocational school students

Targeting the aforementioned challenges faced by students attending vocational schools in China, we propose here three roughly drawn-out interventions that could be carried out by governmental agencies and other social organizations that may serve to improve the current conditions.

Firstly, it is essential to recognize that many vocational school students are not only facing academic challenges but also – perhaps more so – financial difficulties. Poverty alleviation efforts, therefore, should go hand in hand with endeavours to raise pedagogical quality. Relevant research on this subject revealed that poverty alleviation efforts by the state often miss the target as they excluded many poor students while including many affluent ones (e.g., Yi et al., 2013). A more recent study done by Xie and colleagues (2020), however, found that the recent initiatives to offer financial support, often in the form of direct payment, to low-income families with children attending vocational schools seem to be producing promising effects. Such efforts could not only provide the disadvantaged students a stable and solvent livelihood, but also grant them a peace of mind so that they could pursue education to their highest capacity before joining the workforce.

Monetary aid alone, however, is not enough to pull disadvantaged students out of their predicaments. We believe that it is crucial to offer career consulting services to middle and high school students, especially those who are facing the possibility of vocational school channelling. Considering that the consulting service may be difficult to be carried out on a large scale, it should prioritize those who are about to graduate (9th and 12th graders in middle and high school, respectively) and especially those who are performing academically below standards. This service is probably best carried out on the school level, with a local sensibility which recognizes the unique challenges that its students face. Such consulting services could help the students to gain a clearer understanding of both themselves (their interests, aspirations, and talents) and their intended professions (the required abilities, probably salary, and the potential for career development), so that they can make informed decisions upon channelling. Furthermore, the cultivation and specification of life goals and aspirations could also promote students’ mental health and resilience in challenging situations (Cheung et al., 2020). Schools could implement this intervention by hiring independent career consultants, especially those specialized in education and teenage psychology. There are also non-government organizations (NGOs) and private enterprises stepping into this area which could be considered for partnerships.

Lastly, we believe that programs that promote integration of the disadvantaged students into the mainstream culture and society, organized either by the local government or other organizations in the community, is also key to facilitating the students’ pursuit of social mobility – in Bordieuan terms, to provide them with the necessary cultural and social capitals for success. One example of such effort is delineated by Lu and colleagues (2019), which sought to build the ‘social values’ of the students to promote their sense of belonging and responsibility to their community, instead of making decisions solely based on values promulgated by the neoliberal labour market. Another study done by Ni and Ye (2018) focused on the vocational school students’ need for entrepreneurship education and their aspiration for entrepreneurial opportunities, which challenged the conventional misconception that these students are meant to be the followers and labourers of the society. Breaking the cultural cycle of a working-class destiny, in other words, is essential for the promotion of social mobility of the disadvantaged vocational school students.


This article briefly introduced the current system of vocational education in China with an appreciative recognition of its benign effects and intentions. On the other hand, we believe that it is crucial for the continuation of development and improvement of the current vocational school system to point out and discuss its limitations and even potential detriments to the attending students, particularly in terms of inequality, the students’ right to choose, and the narrowing down of future career options. Towards the end, we delineated several possible interventions that could potentially be implemented on both the national and local level to help combat these challenges, which included programs focusing on financial support, career consulting, and social and cultural integration.

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