While survey results over the past few years have indicated that parents are starting to favor practical skills over academic credentials, enrollment numbers at vocational high schools seem to contradict the apparent shift. The Taipei Times yesterday reported that the number of students at vocational high schools has not only dropped by 160,000 since 2009, but is set to be surpassed for the first time in the summer semester by enrollment at regular high schools.
While the nation’s low birthrate is a major factor in the overall drop in high-schoolers, the drop in vocational students accounted for 75.3 percent of the total decrease, the report showed, despite vocational schools being tuition-free since 2014.
This underscores the continuing problem where parents prioritize academic success and college degrees over practical skills to the point where students attend university out of obligation and college graduates are unable to find a job — or end up doing menial office work. Meanwhile, industries are facing a serious shortage of skilled workers.
Deep-rooted cultural norms dictate that “successful” students go on to regular high schools, while those with bad academic results end up at vocational schools, regardless of the student’s interests.
Although surveys conducted in 2017 and 2018 by the Professor Huang Kun-huei Education Foundation showed that significantly more parents preferred that their child attend a vocational high school or college, and two-thirds of respondents did not agree that higher academic qualifications necessarily led to better career advancement, the enrollment numbers show otherwise.
Union of Private School Educators president Yu Jung-hui (尤榮輝) has said that overemphasis by families on academic success has played a role in the drop in enrollment at vocational high schools, but private vocational schools have also been affected by scandals and poor management.
Desperate for students, vocational schools have poured their resources into training students for trendy industries, such as fashion, animation and design, without regard to real-world needs — prompting the government to ban them from opening new performing arts programs for the next school year, as the number of students would oversaturate the Taiwanese market.
However, the measure does not solve any problems as vocational schools still need to prioritize survival over meeting industry demand. Can they survive and still provide quality education?
Misguided past educational reforms have led to the current monster of a system, where even students at vocational schools face pressure to study at a university, when they should be preparing to enter the workforce after graduation.
Even more alarmingly, Yu adds that the quality of faculty and occupational training at vocational universities, mostly attended by graduates of vocational high schools, are “not as industry-related” as those at regular universities.
It is not surprising that parents are reluctant to send their children down this path.
Government officials can promote vocational education all they want, but something more drastic needs to be done instead of waiting for the herd to thin out, as these schools close down due to lack of enrollment.
This might happen unevenly across disciplines and geographical location, and might put certain students at a disadvantage when it comes to their educational opportunities.
The educational professionals who have spoken on the issue all have suggestions worth listening to, and it is time to seriously address the issue. A lack of skilled workers is a critical problem and poll results show that people are acknowledging the issue — but an environment conducive to change is needed for this to happen.
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