Last year, I followed several teachers from a vocational college in eastern Jiangxi Province as they made home visits to applicants for enrollment. I was surprised at how much their sales pitches revolved around the school’s “closed paramilitary management” style. Parents seemed more content than put off by the idea of a little military discipline for their children, often nodding approvingly when the term came.
Later, while doing field research at the same school, I saw for myself what “closed paramilitary management” meant. Each student’s daily schedule is carefully planned and monitored: morning exercises take place at 6.30am, after which students help clean the school before queuing for breakfast at half past seven. Classes start at 8:10 am and continue until lunch. After lunch, all students are required to return to their dorms for rest, and then attend other classes and self-study sessions until 9:30 p.m., after which they return to the dorms. It is half past ten. Like all high school students in China, newly enrolled vocational students are required to complete a week of military training at the start of their first semester; unlike students in non-vocational schools, first-year vocational students continue to undergo military training every morning for their entire first year.
To ensure the safety and discipline of the students, the school where I did my fieldwork also maintains a strict “closed management” protocol. Non-boarding students must have a slip issued by the school and signed by the principal to leave the school premises, while students living in dormitories must present a signed slip if they want to leave on weekends. -end. Cameras are everywhere: A giant screen in the principal’s office displays an eight-by-eight grid of real-time surveillance footage that shows every corner of the school. As if that weren’t enough, there is at least one teacher stationed on each floor of the student dormitory to ensure that students rest during designated hours. It’s no exaggeration to say that students are micromanaged every second of the day, even when they are sleeping.
This is nothing new. Since the 1990s, terms such as “paramilitary” or “militarized management” have featured prominently in the admission brochures of Chinese vocational schools. More striking is the fact that in an era when non-vocational schools increasingly adopt less rigid and modern approaches to teaching and scheduling, vocational schools continue to pride themselves on their strict military discipline, often with general approval from the public and parents.
Understanding why requires looking beyond the walls of the school. High school is not included in the Chinese compulsory education system; instead, students take a high school entrance exam during their final year of college. Although there are exceptions, students with higher scores generally choose to attend “regular” high schools, which focus on preparing students for the college entrance exam. Those who do not score high enough on the exam often have no choice but to go to vocational school if they wish to continue their education.
Because the high school entrance exam is designed to fail half of the students who pass it, tens of millions of teenagers are referred to the Chinese vocational education system every year. What they find is an approach to education that places less emphasis on cultivating their knowledge than on their obedience. To some extent, this serves to prepare professional students for the demands of their future careers. After graduation, vocational students typically seek employment in manufacturing and service industries. Most employers in these industries do not expect applicants to have specialized technical knowledge; instead, they pay more attention to the personal qualities of candidates, such as their willingness to abide by rules, obey orders, and internalize company standards.
If you compare the disciplinary requirements of these companies with the rules and regulations applied in vocational schools, it is not difficult to see the areas of overlap. The emphasis that vocational schools place on following orders rather than exercising personal initiative, the use of strict timetables and the strict control of students’ personal time all reflect the realities of factory life. . Daily military exercises also reinforce these lessons. “If a new student has not had military training, he is not obedient enough,” one teacher told me.
It all comes down to weakening students’ sense of empowerment until they become ideal factory workers – not specialists, but cogs that can be switched from one role to another. at all times to ensure maximum efficiency and productivity.
What is strange is that teachers, parents and even some students themselves seem to be happy with this system. Part of the reason is that most Chinese people have low expectations of vocational schools and their students. Many parents support “militarized management” because they hope that if their children don’t learn anything else, at least they will learn obedience and discipline. “[My child] is still too young to work part time, ”a parent told me. “We will consider this after she has been in school for a few years. If she can master what she is studying that would be great; but if she can’t, at least there will be places that are willing to use her – she won’t drift in society.
The administrators and teachers I interviewed also recognized that imparting specialist knowledge and skills was not their school’s main strength. What is taught in Chinese vocational schools often lags behind industry standards, meaning it is of little use to students after graduation. Instead, schools emphasize discipline and control. By discussing with the teachers, I gradually reconstituted their evaluation criteria and their requirements vis-à-vis their students. “As soon as the students come in, we tell them they’re there to be shop workers,” one of them told me. “If they want to do something else, they should go to another school. The perception that the pupils have of their role is very important: they must know their place.
Considering the distorted and limited expectations placed on vocational students by society, schools and even their own families, it is not surprising that they tend to develop a negative view of themselves. As one student put it, “With my abilities, the highest role I can aspire to is as a senior customer service representative. Under the constant supervision of teachers who see their main role as preparing them for a life of drudgery, it is normal for students to feel unambitious and pessimistic about the future.
Yet even in the midst of all this negativity, students still find ways to carve out their own spaces. Many of my students interviewed told me that the most enjoyable part of their otherwise uninspiring time in vocational school was spending time with their classmates. After giving up classes, homework, exams, not to mention any aspirations they may have had to pursue higher education, they attach greater importance to concrete social experiences: spending time with their peers and having fun together. . Through various informal groups and events, students train to form and maintain healthy and important relationships that will serve them well in the future.
In recent years, Chinese policymakers and experts have touted the potential of vocational education to help reduce the glut of college graduates and keep the country’s manufacturing sector competitive. The current vocational education system is ill-suited to realize this potential, but if there is any hope for reform, it should start with a reassessment of how these schools teach and treat their students.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A vocational school student practices using a spray gun in Feidong County, Anhui Province, October 14, 2021. Ruan Xuefeng / People Visual)