China's university graduates – on average around 7 million each year – are struggling to find jobs.
In a call for more skilled workers, the country now has a new approach to fixing its problems in the education system.
By training young people in skills-based vocational institutions rather than having them attend high schools and universities, the country hope to tackle the specific skills shortages head on.
"The rise of the Chinese economy is accompanied with quality improvements of Chinese products and services," said Premier Li Keqiang, speaking at a national vocational education confab in Beijing on June 23. "Imagine the scale and level of Chinese products and services if most of the 900-million-strong labour force can be trained to master medium- and high-level skills."
China's State Council aims to increase the number of students in vocational educational institutions from 29.34 million at present, to 38.3 million by 202. The total that year will be made up of 23.5 million studying at vocational high schools and 14.8 million in vocational colleges.
Some 600 universities could be converted into vocational colleges, adding to the 1,300 China already has, which graduated around 6 million students last year. While China already has the world's largest number of vocational institutes (13,600 schools and colleges), they are underfunded, need upgraded facilities, and suffer faculty shortages, according to Ge Daokui, the director responsible for vocational studies at the education ministry.
National education authorities intend to start fixing the problems by requiring that local governments ensure adequate education funds are budgeted for vocational institutes. New policies will also encourage the creation of private vocational academies by offering preferential loans as well as favourable tax policies, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.
Convincing parents to encourage their children to choose vocational training over academic studies will be tough. As is true in many other parts of the world, getting a university degree grants one higher social status. But by emphasising the high level support behind the latest policy shift, Beijing is trying to change attitudes towards skills-based education.
"Now the top leadership, including Premier Li Keqiang, are redefining modern vocational education," said Liu Qiaoli, a researcher at the Beijing-based National Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the education ministry. "He connects it with improving people's livelihoods and the country's development, and he acknowledges the essential role of vocational education."