China’s Vocational Education Reform Offers New Possibilities for Finnish Education Export

China is going through a massive vocational education and training (VET) reform. As China rebuilds its system, the Finnish VET-model has answers to many of the challenges China hopes to resolve. Currently VET-cooperation between China and Finland is built on business-to-business models (where Chinese institutes purchase products or service from Finnish providers), but the reform may open new possibilities for the Finnish players. Pedagogical teacher training, course module development and consultation on Finnish vocational qualification system will remain of interest, but joint programs with tuition fees may offer new forms of partnerships.

The Structure of Chinese VET

In China VET is available in secondary schools as well as in tertiary institutions.

  •  Junior secondary vocational schools are primarily located in rural areas where the economy is less developed. Graduates of junior secondary vocational schools become farmers and lower-skilled workers.
  • At the upper secondary level, there are four types of vocational schools:
    1. ​​​​​The most popular VET is a specialized high school that provide three-year certificate programs. Students can enter the labor market directly after graduation.
    2. Vocational high schools are recent transforms of general senior high schools. After graduation, students either enter the labor market directly or go on to tertiary vocational colleges.
    3. Skilled worker schools provide three-year certificate courses for state occupational licenses.
    4. Adult specialized high schools provide full- and part- time and short-form courses that can be either academic or technical.

Chinese VET is administratively complex which places extra challenges to foreign cooperation. The main players are the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS). However, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Personnel, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Poverty Alleviation Office all play a role in VET and each of these administrative entities are mirrored at the provincial and local level.


What is China’s National Vocational Education Reform about?

In early 2019, the State Council released a comprehensive National Vocational Education Reform Implementation Plan (referred as the Plan from now on) to explain, how China develops its vocational education in the coming years. 

China’s key motivation for the reform is to ease the shortage of skilled workers and upgrade the manufacturing sector as a whole. Due to China’s long period of one-child policy, for the past five years already, labor force has had more retirees than workforce entrants, which
translates into the need to boost labor productivity. 

The Plan focuses on improving the National VET structure, its standardsquality and evaluation systems as well as policies as well as better integration with industry. Beyond the structural level, the Plan notes the importance of safeguarding the benefits of skilled professional. 

The Plan states that by 2022, there will be 50 high-level advanced vocational schools offering 150 crucial major study options. Consequently, a new National Standard System of Vocational Education with advanced international standards will cover most of the industries. Industrial actors will take part in vocational education reform and at least 50% of the teachers must have both theoretical and practical background. This ought to indicate
renewed training for teaching and other staff.

In China VET also suffers from challenges related to public image: it is not an attractive alternative for students. Therefore, improving the quality of VET through integrating production and education is among the key goals. Higher education institutions and corporations are encouraged to work together to construct high-level training bases.


The challenges in China’s VET

In 2015 Vivien Stewart identified key challenges in China’s VET system. They remain relevant even after the reform and may provide opportunities for Finnish VET-actors in China’s education market.

  1. The programs have a narrow curriculum design. More general education is needed to ensure that students are adaptable and able to learn new skills
  2. Weak industry connections and a mismatch between employers’ needs and graduates’ capabilities. Building study programs that include both in-class and at work training in a meaningful way will take time as neither the educators nor the industry has experience in it. Similarly, involving the industry in turning VET into the skills needed at the labor market could benefit from the lessons learnt from foreign partners.
  3. VET has a low public image. As in many other countries, vocational education has low status in China’s collective mind. The messages and support mechanisms must be loud and clear and they must come from the government as well as from the positive role models. VET graduates must be able to join China’s growing middle class. 
  4. Structural barriers. Building a pathway between VET and academic education is at very early stages, but it can be instrumental in raising the status in public eye.
  5. Faculty. Finding faculty that combines pedagogical skills with industry experience is not solely a matter of decision making, at least in the short run. Practical skills require practical training and teachers must be able to understand both sides to be able to deliver pedagogically sound learning experiences.
  6. Standards and qualifications systems. Implementing national standards is a key to success. 
  7. Under-developed adult education. A key challenge is to build continuous/life-long learning into the VET system.
  8. Bureaucracy. The complex administration of VET between two ministries and several others with vested interest makes it difficult to adapt to changes.


Conclusions: Opportunities for Finnish education export

The challenges listed above require solutions. Finnish VET reform of recent years has addressed many of the same challenges as what China is looking to implement. Opportunities are there, but capitalizing them will require finding the right partners

The Plan states that by 2022, there will be 50 high-level advanced vocational schools offering 150 crucial study programs which means 197 universities in 29 provinces. Crucial majors include: 1) equipment manufacturing, 2) transportation, 3) ICT, 4) finance and trade, and 5) agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery. The plan is to turn a large number of universities into universities of applied science. 

The selected institutions and programs will get substantial financial and policy support from the government. Finnish VET institutions with interest to form partnerships can establish sister schools and joint programs. How to capitalize from Finland’s experience and expertise for similar transitions in Chinese universities, is the question. 

The opportunities are especially in the systemic level, potentially B-to-G, business to government. The Finnish experiences on standards and qualifications systems, industry connections, teacher and pedagogical training are of keen interest. Finnish institutions have already started cooperating with Chinese partners on vocational teacher training, but there should be potential in volume increase. Based on the existing experience, Chinese schools and/or institutes are the direct buyers of Finnish education products, thus establishing connection with the right Chinese players is the crucial first step to consider. 

Beijing has announced (May 2020) its vocational education reform plan. The reform plan looks to perfect the enrolment mechanism and streamline educational pathways into vocational education. The city will continue to promote collaboration between vocational institutions and enterprises to conduct on-site training for students. Top foreign institutions are encouraged to establish Sino-foreign joint projects with Beijing based vocational
. Specifically, the hope is to introduce top foreign skills qualifications/assessment criteria and explore ways to establish international skills qualification training centres or international testing centres in the city. Other cities are likely to follow suit.

Mari-Anna Suurmunne, Counsellor (Education & Science), Embassy of Finland in Beijing  
Lukia Yang, Programme Officer, Finnish National Agency for Education OPH (Shanghai)



Steward, Vivien 2015. “Made in China: Challenge and Innovation in China’s Vocational Education and Training System” (Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy).

Zhang, Minxuan and Xu, Jinjie 2013. “Toward China’s Modern TVET System: Take Shanghai as Special Experience.” Unpublished.