In Shenzhen, vocational education steps up

Shenzhen is renowned as a city of doers rather than thinkers. Despite the presence of Huawei, Tencent, DJI, and many other highly successful technology firms, its universities lack national and global recognition. The government appears determined to address this perceived shortcoming in typical leapfrog manner, wooing Tsinghua and Peking universities from Beijing to set up joint-venture postgraduate projects in Shenzhen, as well as one of the world’s most prestigious names, Cambridge University, which is looking at an opportunity in the Qianhai special economic zone.

However, Shenzhen is nothing if not a city of pragmatists, and its leaders recognize that a practice-makes-perfect approach to development has proven strengths. While education officials pursue the world’s leading academic minds, they are also pouring resources into vocational education institutes. And they have no qualms experimenting with “dual-track” approaches to learning – research and application-based – to see what works best.

Their latest experiment is Shenzhen Technology University, which welcomed its first batch of 807 freshmen on September 15. This university, which was only approved by the Ministry of Education last December, is seeking to establish a new model for vocational education at the undergraduate level and above. What this means, in practical terms, is it wants to attract the brightest minds in technology, and put them to work here in the most effective way.

Learning from the masters of pragmatism

It should not be surprising to know that Shenzhen has been learning in recent years from the world’s leaders in vocational education, Germany. The city proudly held its first official Sino-German Vocational Education Forum on April 11-12 this year. The forum showcased the progress of China-Germany cooperation in vocational education and focused on “innovative modes of training skilled personnel in the new era”.

The seeds of the forum were planted in 2017 when Shenzhen signed agreements with the German state of Bavaria – the home of BMW – covering teacher training, vocational education research, and “cooperative education”, among other areas. Soon afterward, the Sino-German School was established within the city’s leading vocational higher-education college, the Shenzhen Institute of Information Technology (IIT).

Shenzhen IIT has been around since 2002, which makes it ancient in Shenzhen’s warp-speed history of development. Today, it has 15,468 full-time students and 796 faculty members, 315 of whom hold doctoral or post-doctoral degrees.

From its founding, the institute has been focused on “cultivating inter-disciplinary talents with international vision and craftsman spirit”.

In Shenzhen’s case, no one should be lulled into thinking that “craftsman spirit” describes kids who are good with their hands, can’t get into law school, and want to become plumbers. It means kids who are good with their hands and want to build drones with computer-aided design software.

The institute describes its mission to provide “high-quality teaching, small-class management and personalized development” to students. But its real strength is its flexibility in working with the city’s companies to support their need for talent that can get stuff done. If that sounds like its mission is to produce people like Ren Zhengfei, founder of Huawei, then that’s what it is. As the school proudly declares on its website: “The Institute connects Shenzhen’s pillar industries and exemplifies the characteristics of information technology.”

Huawei is just one of many companies benefitting from the city’s dedication to innovative models of vocational education. Other giants, such as Ping An Insurance (which is really a tech company), and BYD, maker of electric vehicles, conduct extensive cooperation with the institute. Out-of-towners such as Alibaba are welcomed, too.

This is not just a case of companies paying lip service to “cooperation” while they scour for talent. Shenzhen IIT has set aside large spaces for training venues designed to attract enterprises to jointly build “practical teaching bases” and “scientific and technological innovation platforms”. These include two provincial-level innovation platforms, an advanced civil engineering research center, an intelligent manufacturing training center, and five collaborative innovation centers. The Institute has two national-level higher vocational education training bases, 11 provincial-level higher vocational education training bases, a provincial-level public training center, 12 provincial-level off-campus practical teaching bases for college students and 33 public off-campus training bases for higher vocational education in Shenzhen.

Older than Shenzhen IIT, almost prehistoric, is the Shenzhen First Polytechnic School (Shenzhen Poly), which was established in 1993. It has four campuses (East, West, North and OCT), with 21,000 full-time and 6,000 part-time students enrolled.

Shenzhen Poly has also actively explored Germany’s “dual-track” approach to higher education, having signed agreements with the Lauingen Vocational School in Bavaria. Two of its course majors, mechatronics and electronic information technology, run teaching plans and curriculum development according to the German model. Yet it also, by combining this approach with China’s modern apprenticeship system, helps improve professional teaching standards.

In November last year, Shenzhen Poly signed an agreement with Shenzhen Yuto Packaging Technology Company to build another innovative model of education, Yuto Graphic Communication College. The school says it has always focused on strategic emerging industries, designing its majors for “future industries”. Its aim, it says, is to build a “world first-class vocational college with Chinese characteristics”.

The school takes a very hands-on approach to student development. Apprenticeships are conducted in joint-instruction methods whereby four students are supervised by a part-time teacher, working directly with an executive from a company.

As successful as Shenzhen Poly and Shenzhen IIT have been, however, there can always be a higher bar to clear in this relentlessly driven city of entrepreneurs. Which is why Shenzhen Technology University was formally approved by the Ministry of Education: to create a “new type of vocational education at the undergraduate level and above”. This is a high-level applied technology university, with bigger funding and more experienced faculty. It is also much harder to get into – results from the Gaokao entrance exams need to be higher.

The new university’s importance is reflected in the fact it was established under the city’s previous “13th five-year plan”. Yet this is not just another ivory tower. Its goal is to “face the needs of high-end industry development and train high-level engineers, designers and other top specialized talents”.

Yao Jianquan, a senior member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was quoted by local media as saying there are very few high-level vocational schools in China, and it was the right time establish Shenzhen University of Technology.

This does not mean the two existing colleges are about to be left behind, however. The provincial government is encouraging the development of stronger linkages between vocational colleges at the secondary and higher levels. This has resulted in Shenzhen Poly and Shenzhen IIT being approved to open “vocational college pilot classes” in five other secondary vocational schools outside of Shenzhen. (Secondary vocational schools are those that recruit students at a younger age, from junior high schools.) 

The city government sees a strong role being played by vocational colleges in  Shenzhen’s ongoing development. The city’s official goals, under the 14th five-year plan to 2025, include building “2 or 3 world-class vocational colleges”. It envisages Shenzhen becoming a “world-class vocational education highland,” which will, in turn, underpin the drive to become a “modern, international and innovative city” as well as an “international innovation center of science, technology and industry”.

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