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A private technology university aims to reverse the poor reputation of vocational education and introduce new training techniques, but it will need government support

By Xie Ying , Du Wei Updated Jul.1

Students at a vocational school learn machining skills, Handan, Hebei Province, December 9, 2021

A student at a technical school works on a circuit board, Yongji, Shanxi Province, May 19, 2015

Cao Dewang, known in China as the “King of Glass,” looks set to realize his dream of revolutionizing the system of vocational higher education in China.  

Founder and president of Fuyao Group, a world-leading glass manufacturer, Cao broke ground on a private university, provisionally named Fuyao Technology University, in May 2022. Financed by Heren Charity Foundation that Cao also founded, the university is in his hometown, Fuzhou, capital of South China’s Fujian Province.  

According to Cao, now 75, Fuyao Technology University will be based on Germany’s dual system of vocational education and training to provide graduates to meet the needs of enterprises. The dual system combines academic tutoring in the classroom and practical training in firms.  

The principles of cooperation between schools and enterprises and industry-education integration were proposed in China years ago, but not implemented well, leading to a lack of trained workers across many fields. According to a guideline for talent training issued by China’s Ministry of Education in 2017, the skills shortage is estimated to reach nearly 30 million in China’s top 10 manufacturing sectors by 2025, particularly in IT, power equipment and automated machine tools.  

“My purpose in establishing this university is not so China has yet another university, but for reform and exploration,” Cao said at the eighth annual conference of the China Education 30 Forum held at the end of 2021 in Beijing.  

Some educators believe that an institution like Fuyao Technology University could be a pioneer in training applied talent, a weakness of general universities and other vocational schools often criticized for being a drag on the development of industry. But its success will depend on how the reform is implemented and how much government support it gets. 

Cao’s Dream 
Heren Charity Foundation, according to media reports, began reducing its equity in the Fuyao Group in February, with funds directed to construction of the university. The first tranche of the money, 10 billion yuan (US$1.5b), is for campus construction.  

Cao has set up scholarships and bursaries in domestic universities since the 1990s and donated toward university libraries and institutes. But it was a trip to Germany that first inspired him. Cao said he was impressed by the high production standards of even small enterprises due to the country’s rigorous dual training system in specialized universities. In media interviews, he often spoke of his concerns over China’s lack of senior engineers and factory managers, saying that graduates from domestic universities and colleges have poor practical skills.  

“We aim to train ‘artisans’ in engineering and management... We want to advocate the dual-tutor system. On one hand, the university teaches knowledge, on the other, enterprises send their technicians to teach practical skills,” Cao told NewsChina. “We have to equip our students with both thinking ability and practical skills and inject them with confidence, so they can work as engineers after they graduate,” he added.  

Fuyao Technology University chose a site in Liuzhou Island in southwestern Fuzhou, close to a high-tech industrial zone and Fuzhou University Zone, where there are 13 universities and colleges.  

Fuyao Technology University plans to recruit its first batch of 240- 480 undergraduates in July 2023, and by 2033, it envisions a student body of 6,000 undergrads and 6,000 postgrads. So far, there is no mention of how much it will cost students to attend, or if there will be scholarships.  

Zhu Chongshi, retired president of Xiamen University, also in Fujian Province, will take the helm of the new university. He said Fuyao Technology University will offer six majors at first, including material science and engineering, information and automation, vehicles and traffic engineering, mechanics and smart manufacturing, environment and ecology, and finance and management. The university will encourage students to intern in labs, practical training centers or plants and enterprises during summer and winter vacations.  

“An advantage of Fuyao Technology University is that I am an entrepreneur and I know what to teach our students and what fields we need to offer,” Cao told NewsChina. He intends to invite presidents from prestigious universities at home and abroad to form the board of directors. 
According to Dr. Que Mingkun, a researcher at the Institute of National Institutions, Zhejiang University, cooperation between universities and enterprises is usually formalistic. “Universities are academic organizations and enterprises are economic organizations that want to maximize profits. Their values don’t really match. Many university teachers look down on the corporate world, and they end up being very much junior partners in any cooperation,” he said.  

Zhu told NewsChina that universities’ talent training lags behind the development of enterprises. “When universities train people based on the enterprise demands they understand, they find businesses are already ahead of the curve. They can’t keep up,” he said. “Getting actual experience for students was the biggest challenge for me when I served as president [of Xiamen University]. I found it very difficult for our students to find an internship, as companies feel it’s a burden to guide and teach an intern. So I’ll put more efforts into internships at Fuyao University,” he said. 

Exploited Workers 
Chinese media is full of reports of firms exploiting young interns as cheap labor, where they are ordered to do low-level tasks. But companies counter that students are not prepared for technical jobs based on their classroom learning.  

That is why Zhu emphasizes the importance of making clear the demands of the enterprises and keeping a “seamless connection” with them. He insists the university’s board of directors will comprise educators and entrepreneurs and they will also invite senior managers of leading enterprises to form a consulting committee. Zhu hopes that Fuyao Technology University will attract more enterprise support based on Cao’s reputation.  

Analysts warn there will be many practical difficulties to achieving this aim.  

“They have to make clear how many out-of-school tutors [from firms] they need to support the full capacity of 12,000 students, how to define who is qualified and how to appraise and pay them. It’s actually a problem with operation modes and appraisal systems. And, the current system universities use may conflict with that used by enterprises,” Yan Fengqiao, dean of the Graduate School of Education, Peking University, told NewsChina.  

Wang Yitao, director of the Research Center of Non-Governmental Education, Suzhou University, agreed it would be hard to integrate non-academic teachers from outside the regular system. “Most domestic universities value academic achievements when appraising talents, including their educational background, their academic titles and the number of papers they’ve published,” he told NewsChina.  

Cao favors the German model of Fachhochschule – universities of applied sciences, which focus on subjects like engineering, computer science, design and other professional subjects. They grant undergrad and postgrad degrees, but also have close links with industry and prioritize hands-on work experience. The faculty must have both teaching and practical skills, and have worked for several years outside academia.  

Teachers like this are rare in China. Even in Germany, its Fachhochschulen face challenges. It is becoming harder to recruit faculty as the number of students grows. According to a 2017 report by German public broadcaster ARD, when recruiting teachers, Fachhochschulen may lose out to companies and other universities. The report also pointed out that Fachhochschulen, which have highly subdivided majors and professional education, may not adapt to the fast-changing market.  

Zhu said they are still designing the core majors, which they will adjust according to what skills enterprises need.  

“For example, we’ll consider setting up one or several majors that target enterprises in Fujian or Zhejiang Province, or in the Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta areas. This is what Fuyao Technology University wants to explore, a system that supports more flexible and adaptable major designs,” Zhu said, stressing they will ensure the stability of majors.  

Yan thinks this will be difficult to achieve. “It’s very wise and farsighted to dynamically adjust majors according to social demands, but it’s very difficult, since it takes a lot of time to create a major system, and once established, it’s hard to change it,” Yan said.  

Although Cao expects Fuyao Technology University to target worldwide enterprises, experts like Que and Yan suggest it should focus on local industries and resources, since it is easier to connect with local enterprises who like to recruit local graduates to save costs. 

Needed Pioneer 
Since Cao proposed his university, the school has attracted nationwide attention. Although neither Cao nor the Fuzhou government has defined Fuyao University as a vocational school, many analysts expect it to be a pioneer in vocational education, given its high emphasis on enterprise demands.  

Since 1985, China has repeatedly stated its policy of enrolling a proper rate of students in vocational schools after they complete junior high school, which comes at the end of the nine-year period of free compulsory education. But since universities started expanding in the 1990s, the ratio of vocational high school students to high school students has constantly fallen. Vocational high schools have lost their social status and find it hard to recruit good students and teachers. Vocational colleges are in the same predicament. Given they usually recruit students based on the same national examinations as universities, they are considered a safe choice for students not eligible for universities.  

But as the number of university graduates grows, it is increasingly hard to find a decent job. According to a 2020 survey on the difficulty graduates have finding employment conducted by a research team led by the Development Research Center of the State Council, among all university graduates and postgraduates who had not signed an employment contract by June 2020, 65.6 percent only had a first degree, nearly 40 percent higher than junior college graduates, eight times that of those with a master’s and 470 times that of PhDs. Meanwhile, businesses complained it was difficult to recruit good workers or technicians. The Ministry of Education (MoE) has emphasized the need to keep a suitable ratio of vocational high school students, pledging to improve vocational schools and enhance their social status.  

This did little to ease parents’ worries that their children would have to attend a vocational school after completing junior high school, since parents persistently view vocational schools, especially vocational high schools, as a repository for badly behaved students, low-quality teachers and poor management and teaching.  

During the 2022 two sessions, China’s main annual legislative meetings, Feng Yi, a delegate to the National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislature, proposed adding high school education to the compulsory education system of nine years to improve the quality of the workforce.  

Other delegates proposed students should not be streamed into regular high schools and vocational schools through national high school entrance exams. The delegates believe that rather than starting work in factories or other enterprises at a young age, students should receive more regular and standardized education.  

But at a press conference during the two sessions, MoE official Chen Ziji emphasized the necessity of this separation, saying vocational education is an important part of high school education which enables students of different potential to find a development path that suits them, and it helps promote employment and regional economies. Chen said the MoE is setting up a system for a national entrance exam specially targeting vocational high school students to help them access further education. According to Chen, the MoE will continue to improve vocational colleges and universities and encourage them to expand recruitment based on this exam.  

In 2019, the MoE approved 15 vocational colleges to be upgraded to universities and by 2021, at least 22 vocational colleges had become universities. Also in 2019, the MoE issued a document on reforming vocational education, which said that vocational education is of equal importance to regular high school education.  

Against this backdrop, Fuyao Technology University could provide an alternative path for vocational education, but it faces challenges in introducing its new model of higher education due to the entrenched university system. It will need firm support from education authorities, analysts said.  

“The biggest challenge is whether or not we can really be pioneering and how much room there is for us to make these changes,” Zhu said.  

“Enjoying more freedom is a fundamental guarantee of realizing and keeping Fuyao University’s features and the relationship between the school and the government will determine the degree of freedom,” Yan told NewsChina.  

When Fuyao Technology University was first put on the agenda of Heren Charity Foundation in May 2021, it was defined as “a public university that explores new operation modes” in an article published on the charity’s WeChat account.  

In another article published in November 2021, Heren Charity Foundation redefined Fuyao Technology University as a “new private and non-profit high-end university focusing on technological application and research.” Analysts believe the change in mission statement indicates a greater degree of operational freedom.  

“Seen from historical policies, promoting integration of vocational education and ordinary higher education is a major part of industryeducation integration, and private schools are expected to be the biggest implementer of such integration,” commented a report by Industrial Equality cited by stcn.com, an industrial news website.  

Chinese media reported that Fuyao Technology University has received significant backing from Fujian provincial government, which has provided 0.8 square kilometers of land and 10 billion yuan (US$1.5b) in capital.  

The municipal government of Fuzhou has promised to allocate 300-500 million yuan (US$46.2-76.9m) annually to bring in skilled professionals from overseas. The institution is mentioned often in provincial and municipal government documents on education or city development, making analysts optimistic about the project and its impact on education reform.  

“If China continues to pursue reform and opening-up and deals with the relationship between the government, markets and society well, more and more social organizations and individuals will be encouraged to promote educational reform and private education will develop better,” Yan said. “But there might also be external factors that influence the effect of university reform, so it will still be a long time before we see clear changes [in private education],” he added.

Pictured is the final design concept for Fuyao Technology University. Construction began on May 14 and is scheduled for completion in June 2023.