Many Chinese rural students believe going to college is the only way to escape from poverty.
But Liu Huanqing, from rural Zhumadian in central China's Henan Province, is proof that college is not the only answer.
He gave up his chance of going to university when he dropped out of senior middle school to pursue vocational education in 1996.
"My family was too poor to support me," says Liu, his family's second child. "It was difficult, but I had no other choice but to go to a vocational school to learn a skill to earn myself a living."
Today, Liu, now 26, is a very different person. After working for four years repairing mobile phones, he set up his own telecommunications company last year. He now has about 20 employees and earns at least 100,000 yuan (US$12,000) a year. Dressed in a brown suit and sporting a pair of glasses, he looks every inch an urban businessman.
"I don't regret giving up my dream of going to college," he says. "Vocational education is more practical for rural students. It's only the first step in your life."
And Liu is far from unique. More and more junior middle school graduates, especially those from lower income families in rural and urban areas, are opting to attend vocational school instead of senior middle school.
Last year, the number of newly enrolled vocational school students reached a new high of 5.5 million, and "it's estimated that we'll have 1 million more this year," says Huang Yao, director of the Vocational and Adult Education Department of the Ministry of Education. "By 2007, yearly enrolment is expected to be the same as in senior middle schools, which was 8.5 million last year."
According to ministry officials, the State Council will hold a special meeting on November 7-8 to further promote vocational education. A special fund of 3.6 billion yuan (US$444 million) is to be earmarked for vocational education by the central government by 2007.
Figures show that about 8 million junior middle school graduates directly entered the labor market last year. But with inadequate knowledge and skills, they cannot find satisfactory jobs.
It is estimated China needs another 10 million skilled workers. Statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security show that senior technical workers account for only 4 per cent of China's 70 million technical workers, far behind the 30 to 40 percent level in developed countries.
"The move to promote vocational education is designed to meet the growing need for skilled workers in China, especially in the service industry," Huang said.
In Henan - a province of 97 million, one of the largest in the nation, and the largest exporter of migrant workers - vocational education is gaining momentum.
"Last year, key vocational schools were all filled to capacity," says Cui Bingjian, deputy director of the provincial education bureau. "This year, we'll have 500,000 new students, 60 percent of whom are from rural families."
According to Cui, the most important factor in promoting vocational education is making sure graduates find jobs. "At the moment about 95 percent of our students have no trouble finding work," he says.
Tuition fees at vocational schools are only about 1,000 yuan (US$120) a year and graduates can quickly offer financial assistance to their families, Cui adds.
However, statistics in Henan show that although the number of vocational school students is climbing, it is not growing as fast as the number of senior middle school students.
Influenced by Confucius' saying that a good scholar will make a good official, most rural residents see going to senior middle school and then college as the only way to a bright future. Vocational schools are very much their second choice.
Eight out of 10 students interviewed said they chose vocational schools because they had failed the senior middle school entrance exam and this was the only path left to realize their dreams.
"I wish I could be a student at the Central Conservatory of Music," says Zhang Jing, a 15-year-old student from a rural family, now studying at the Xin'an Vocational School near Luoyang. Her exam results were not good enough to secure a place at senior middle school, so her parents sent her to study music in Xin'an.
"I still want to go to college, and that is also the dream of my 13-year-old brother," Zhang says timidly.
Zhang's school has 5,000 students, but more than 1,000 are learning exactly the same things as those in senior middle school. The rest have the chance to go to higher vocational schools or specific departments in universities.
"Last year, about half of our graduates were admitted to higher schools," Zhang adds. "I hope I can be one of them."
Huang Yao, the education ministry official, says there is a mistaken belief that vocational schools are not as good as senior middle schools.
"Vocational schools complement senior middle schools. We have to change the misconception that the vocational schools are inferior," he insists.
Problems also exist in the gap between urban vocational schools and rural schools. Key schools have more students than they can hold, but schools in poorer rural areas are still short of students.
To balance the development of vocational education in cities and the countryside, some schools in Henan are adopting a special module called "1+1+1." In the first year, students learn basic knowledge from textbooks in rural schools, before moving to partner schools in cities to study specific majors in the second year. In the third year, students gain work experience in industry.
"It's a valuable chance for me to study at the Henan Information Engineering School," said Xiao Anna, who spent her first year in a rural vocational school near Zhumadian. "Life here is very different. We have better classrooms, teachers and even better food."
To promote communication between the institutions, nine vocational unions, consisting of schools, enterprises and trade associations, have been set up in the province. Enterprises directly tell schools what kind of workers they want so that schools can adjust courses accordingly and cater to their needs.
"All of our workers are graduates from schools under the traffic and vehicle union," said Cheng Junqiang, manager of a Volkswagen maintenance garage. "Such co-operation saves us a great amount of money and energy."
However, though tuition fees for vocational schools are far less than for universities, there are still students who cannot afford it. The percentage of students who cannot meet the fees stands at about 10 per cent in Henan. Unlike poor university students who can apply for loans and grants, vocational school students currently have no access to financial aid.
Education ministry officials say a plan to put financial aid in place for poor students at vocational schools has been drafted and will possibly soon get approval from the central government.
(China Daily October 26, 2005)