* New vocational education parks plan for up to 300,000
* China needs to improve workforce skills to re-tool economy
* Many existing vocational schools struggle to attract
* Studies show many teachers lack relevant industry
By Alexandra Harney
GUIYANG, China, Oct 15 Three decades ago,
Chinese cities began turning rural land into industrial parks to
attract foreign investors. Today, a new kind of project is
blooming in China's countryside: the vocational education park.
Cities around China are carving out tracts of land for
school parks - dubbed "education factories" - designed to train
hundreds of thousands of students.
Fuelling their drive are generous government subsidies and
targets to increase the number of skilled workers, part of
Beijing's push to redirect China's economy away from its
investment-led past towards a more innovative, high-tech future.
But the expansion comes even as many existing vocational
schools are struggling to live up to their promise.
"You can build as much as you want, but unless you get good
teachers, good curriculum and a system that assesses and rewards
high performing schools with more resources, it's just going to
be a waste of money," says Scott Rozelle, co-director of the
Rural Education Action Program at Stanford University and the
author of many papers on vocational education in China.
There is no question China needs to raise skill levels.
Wayne Zhang, who runs a home decor products factory in
northeastern China, says that finding skilled workers - in order
to increase capacity or make more complex products - is
increasingly hard. Of the 100 such staff he set out to hire last
year, he has only been able to find 60.
As of 2010, just 24 percent of China's workforce had
attended at least some upper secondary school, compared with an
OECD average of 74 percent, according to a study published by
the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at
Stanford University in February.
As the labour force shrinks and ages, China also needs to
coax more productivity out of each worker. Worker training could
help avoid the so-called "middle-income trap" and, in theory,
narrow a widening income gap that threatens social stability.
OUT OF STEP
Lanzhou, capital of central Gansu province, reportedly
expects to attract more than 30 schools and 150,000 students to
its vocational school park opening in 2017. Ganzhou, in southern
Jiangxi province, has been reported to be building a vocational
school district which hopes to have at least 10 vocational
schools and more than 100,000 students when it opens in 2018.
Yunnan, Shandong and Hunan provinces all have vocational school
And yet, many Chinese vocational schools already struggle to
attract students. Vocational schools, almost all state-run, are
usually high schools, although China is pushing to create more
But vocational education lacks the prestige of conventional
high school. Many teachers have never worked in the industries
they are preparing students to join.
One study of computing schools found that only 10 percent of
teachers had actually worked in the sector. And too often, their
critics say, the courses and teaching methods vocational schools
offer are out of step with the demands of the economy.
Yu Zhongwen, former head of two vocational schools and the
vice chairman of the Chinese Society of Vocational and Technical
Education, blames a historic lack of government funding compared
with the subsidies for traditional education and insufficient
corporate involvement in the vocational education system.
The Ministry of Education declined a request for comment,
saying only that "relevant documents were still being researched
EDUCATION FACTORY TOWN
In a rural area of Guiyang, the capital city of southwestern
Guizhou province, tree-covered hills are being razed to make
room for the Qingzhen Vocational Education City.
Seventeen schools have already agreed to be part of the
zone, including agricultural engineering, transportation,
construction and automotive schools. The zone has capacity for
35 schools and 300,000 students.
At the Guizhou Machinery Industry School, where enrolment is
expected to increase from about 7,000 students this year to
10,000 next year, vice president Xu Guoqing says that grouping
schools together in a new district will help dispel parents'
concerns about the quality of vocational education and lessen
overlap in course offerings.
State subsidies sweeten the deal. All of the students at
Guizhou Machinery are on full scholarships funded by the
provincial government. Because they come from poor areas, more
than 80 percent of students receive a 2,000 yuan ($315) annual
living expenses stipend from the central government.
Students said they appreciated the schools' focus on
practical skills, rather than the theory taught in conventional
high school or university.
"Going to class feels like going to work in a factory," said
Wu Wei, a student at the construction school.
Indeed, one of the criticisms of China's vocational schools
is that rather than educating their students, some have simply
shipped them off to work at factories as interns under
conditions that violate Chinese labour law.
Guizhou Machinery Industry School's Xu says that what
matters in vocational education is not how big a school is, but
how it is run. The stakes are rising for China's vocational
schools. Says Xu: "If we run things the old way, we'll be left
($1 = 6.3737 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting By Alexandra Harney; Additional reporting by
Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)