Feb. 14-15: Online Days
Feb. 18-22: On-site Days in Washington DC

Developing a Triple System Integrating Academic, Professional and Vocational Degrees

Baocun Liu

Beijing Normal University

Tengteng Zhuang

Beijing Normal University

Jun Teng

Beijing Normal University


The timely theme of the 67th Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Meeting advocates “Improving Education for a More Equitable World” (CIES 2022). It is not incidental that the Third World Higher Education Conference held by UNESCO in Barcelona this year also strived for “Equity, Inclusion and Pluralism in Higher Education”. The theme comes against the backdrop of dramatic massification of the global higher education and more importantly, the increasing education inequity and disparities to which the massification has been companion.

Human beings are still facing a harsh reality, and the long march to an equitable world demands the continuous improvement of education. Due to various factors such as insufficient and ineffective system designs, limited improvements have been made to realize educational equity despite the abundance of educational reforms across the globe. For example, although the gross enrollment rate of higher education in 68 countries exceeded 50% in 2020 (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2021), meeting the conceptual standard of universality in higher education (Trow, 2010), inequality remains persistent and sometimes recurring in higher education. It is obvious that such disparities have been resulted from both cultural factors pertaining to norms and social attributes and the structural design of the higher education system comprising of different tracks.

While getting access to a university or college seems no longer a severe problem given the dramatic expansion of the higher education sector as a whole, accessing high-caliber education opportunities at tertiary level remains difficult for a large proportion of relevant age cohorts. For instance, in some societies students from under-represented backgrounds often have lower completion rates and are tracked into less prestigious higher education institutions (e.g. the post-secondary vocational education track) which in fact do not reward them with expected value (Marginson, 2016; Salmi, 2022). While students have gone great lengths to strive for a position and credential at tertiary level, such credentials they pursue are severely devalued given the considerable quality stratification in the national and global higher education sector. In this respect, the equity and inclusion, which is the global aspiration and quest for educational modernization, remains preliminary in terms of quantity at most, rather than full-fledged in light of quality. The pluralism in higher education thus far in fact is standing upon an uneven landscape on which not each type of its constituent and participant carries the same weight.

In its issued report Beyond Limits: New Ways to Reinvent Higher Education, UNESCO identifies the existing hierarchical and weakly connected archipelago of institutions and programs as a challenge that needs to be overcome for improving educational experiences and outcomes for all. UNESCO urgently calls for the building of “an integrated system with diversity of programs and flexible learning pathways connecting them to enlarge the educational opportunities for youth and adults and avoid dead ends” (UNESCO, 2022, p. 11) as a substantive change needed to reinvent higher education. A strong emphasis has been put on the fostering of transfer possibilities among different institutions and programs through relevant qualification frameworks, practice standards and assessment mechanisms, with the need to develop mechanisms of recognition that consider all types of programs, formal and non-formal, online and off-line being emphatically accentuated. UNESCO even proposes the abolishment of “regulatory provisions that limit flexible pathways and articulation among programmes and institutions” (UNESCO, 2022, p. 31) in order to achieve the non-discriminant diversity of higher education programs. It indicates that the current unevenness and the inequity it affords regarding the global higher education landscape results from structural and systematic factors rather than merely technical ones.    

For a significant period, higher vocational education (HVE) in the Chinese context has been an example of a disadvantaged education track that is inferior to the academic track in terms of social recognition, employment opportunities, and graduates’ competitiveness in the labor market. HVE refers to “the postsecondary level skilled manpower-oriented and employment-oriented education whose direct purpose is to serve local economic development” (Zhuang, 2018, p. 18), hence conceptually being different from academic higher education provided by four-year universities and colleges. The more important difference between HVE and academic higher education lies in the perceived social identity and the property of degree that their graduates hold. In the Chinese discourse system, whereas four-year university and college students are conceived of as ‘undergraduates’ as with international practices, HVE is not perceived qualified to provide undergraduate education. Rather, it only goes with a ‘post-secondary’ label that indicates a state between the secondary and the undergraduate. That is to say, there is a huge gap between higher education and HVE in terms of non-discriminant inclusiveness aspired to on the global stage of higher education.

In fact, the HVE sector in China has achieved tremendous progress over the past two decades compared to its own past. Since 1996 when China issued its Vocational Education Law, the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to expand the sector to enlarge the student basis for more human capital purposes. Numerous supportive and guiding policies aimed at developing HVE were subsequently issued by various governmental bodies, even including the highest administrative body, the State Council. While there were only 474 HVE institutions nationwide in 1999, the number almost tripled within just a few years in 2005 (Zhuang, 2018). Through various efforts to maintain a balance between quantity and quality in subsequent years, the latest number of HVE institutions nationwide amounts to 1,486 in 2020 (MOE, 2020). This number accounts for 54% of the overall institutions of higher learning at tertiary level, even outnumbering four-year universities and colleges. Furthermore, the Chinese government did make tremendous effort to increase the quality of HVE, which is termed as the ‘internal development’ of the sector. Development of assessment mechanisms, selection of model and key HVE institutions to set examples, the implementation of group schooling, promotion of international cooperation were major aspects on which China prompted the HVE sector to scale greater heights from 2006 to 2014 (Zhuang, 2018). Later from 2015 to 2018, the country started a new initiative on innovation and development of the sector to restructure and reinvent HVE. Exemplar measures included devolving more decision-making power to HVE institutions, striving for more openness for the operation of HVE, strengthening institution-industry collaboration, etc. As a result, the number of students registered in HVE rocketed from slightly over 1 million in 1999 to more than 10 million in 2014 (Zhuang, 2018). Furthermore, HVE programs cover a wide range of specialties and fields that cater to the needs of the industry sector and economic advancement according to the Catalogue of Specialty (2015 version) released by MOE.   

Despite the size growth and preliminary progress compared to the sector’s own past, the harsh reality is that HVE is still largely perceived as a ‘dead end’ within the existing education system due to the lack of an upward mobility channel within the track or a transfer channel through which students can pursue studies at a higher level in other tracks. As with the words of UNESCO in its report, HVE in China is “conceived and operate as silos with no linkages with other parts of the system restricting mobility among them” (UNESCO, 2022, p. 31). The lack of these linkages and channels that could provide students with further development opportunities as well as the existing low social status of HVE combined have thus far hindered the confidence of students and many other stakeholders in this track, despite the enormous size and the titular importance of HVE in publicity discourses.

As a matter of fact, vocational and technical education in China is not only provided at tertiary level, but starting from the secondary school level, namely vocational high schools. However, being it vocational high schools or HVE, the vast majority of graduates directly go to the labor market rather than pursuing higher-level learning opportunities, although their employment situation is less socially recognized as those graduating from four-year universities and colleges providing academic programs at an aggregate level. Because of the lack of linkages to higher level programs (e.g. master’s or PhD), vocational education’s appeal to the vast majority of aged cohorts, their parents, and other social stakeholders is considerably discounted although non-well-performing and less competitive students have to turn to it for a tertial education credential for survival. As such, the gap between HVE and academic higher education not only exists, but has also widen in many respects although policies promoting the restructuring of this sector can date back to as early as 1980s (Luo, 2013).

One of the huge gaps between HVE and its academic counterparts is manifest in the fund-drawing capability of institutions. Research has shown that the annual amount of grants alone obtained by premium universities can be 150 times that obtained by HVEs standing at the bottom of the hierarchical tertiary education landscape (Zhuang & Xu, 2018). Such huge gap significantly prevents HVE from having sufficient capability to reinvent, restructure and reform themselves, which further impacts the overall educational experiences of its students. As such, how to open up mobility channels for HVE receivers and rebuild people’s confidence in vocational education is a pressing issue to be solved in the development of vocational education in China.


Borrowing from International Experiences

With a policy borrowing perspective, this study teases out some successful experiences around the globe in terms of students transiting from vocational education to academic higher education along their learning journey. As summarized by OECD in a report reviewing vocational education and training worldwide, one of the key characteristics of effective vocational programs is the establishment of higher-level vocational qualifications and avenues of progression from initial vocational programs to both higher-level vocational and academic programs (OECD, 2015). Pathways to more academic qualifications are conceived of as very important means to enhance the attractiveness of the vocational track, alongside with the perception that vocational programs should be developed in partnership and involving government, employers and other stakeholders.

For example, there has been an increase in students who enter the academic higher education track after their learning experiences in the vocational education and training (VET) sector in Australia. Research has indicated that as early as in 2009, prior study in vocational education was accepted by more than 80% of Australian universities when enrolling students in academic higher education courses (Cao & Tran, 2015). Despite the fact that a stressful time may exist for students during their early period of transition, research has indicated that many students view such a cross-track transition as a positive experience which brings them with enthusiasm and resilience to respond to challenges (Catterall, Davis, & Yang, 2014). Student groups who benefit from such pathways from vocational education and associate degrees to academic higher education include Chinese international students, for whom such an accessible transfer pathway is found to be the most important factor fueling international students to undertake vocational education in Australia (Cao & Tran, 2015).

In Germany, in contrast to the long-standing dual system where students have to choose academic higher education or vocational training, despite the high quality of the vocational training track in the country, a so-called ‘dual study program’ that takes a complimentary perspective of vocational and academic learning has emerged and triggered growing interest in recent years to make VET more attractive, based upon providing access to academic higher education for those who hold vocational qualifications only (Ertl, 2020). In contrast to traditional practices in previous years in which students completing their VET programs can only choose to pursue studies in the academic higher education track after working for three years, the current dual study programs create a parallel structure to combine vocational and academic higher education into one pathway (Ertl, 2020). It is worth noting that the future growth of the dual study programs may also extend to programs at Master level (Hähn, Krone, & Ratermann-Busse, 2019).

Another salient example in Continental Europe is France which is believed as one of the first countries in the continent that developed a national qualification framework (NQF) for all of its educational sectors (Hippach-Schneider, Schneider, Ménard, & Tritscher-Archan, 2017). Composed of five levels of qualification, namely, first secondary grades (level 5), baccalaureate level (level 4), short vocational programs (level 3), bachelor’s degree (level 2), and master’s degree (level 1), the French NQF framework is used by both government bodies and the employment sector when weighing educational outcomes (Hippach-Schneider et al., 2017). Although the vocational level is also lower than the bachelor and master’s level, vocational education is in fact not fully separated from other types of education as different tracks. Rather, there is a clear upward mobility channel from the vocational level to higher levels.

In UK, while traditionally apprenticeship was synonymous with vocational education provided by polytechnic institutions, recent years has witnessed the formal establishment and rapid growth of degree apprenticeships as a means to develop employer-focused higher education in England (Universities UK, 2017). Among various levels of apprenticeships in the current UK apprenticeship system, degree apprenticeships stand at level 6 and level 7, which are equivalent to bachelor’s or master’s degree. It is reported to be likely to reach level 8 in the future, which is equivalent to PhD as an alternative to traditional educational routes (Universities UK, 2017).

Other countries with strong tertiary VET offerings and the flexible pathways to allow for mobility and avoid the risk of dead-ends include Austria, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland and some states in the USA (e.g. South Carolina, Texas) (OECD, 2015).


Exploring a Triple System Integrating Academic Professional and Vocational Degrees

Despite the fact that the degree systems and the relevant transfer channels may vary from country to country, one important commonality of the aforementioned countries is that there are different progress routes offered at various levels to connect VET with the academic higher education to avoid dead-ends. Some countries connect such routes through employing a unified national qualification framework, whereas some others open the channels between the different educational tracks. Some countries also extend vocational education beyond bachelor’s degree to master’s, and even potentially to doctoral level (e.g. degree apprenticeship in UK). These measures provide some practical implications in developing an integrated degree system covering and connecting different educational tracks.

In China, the degree system currently comprises two formal tracks at several levels. The two tracks are academic track and the professional track, and the three levels are bachelor level (xue shi, or ben ke), master’s level (shuo shi) and doctoral level (bo shi). Some institutions of higher learning (e.g. some teacher training school) recruit school leavers and provide postsecondary education (zhuan ke), but graduates of these institutions are not granted degrees but merely certificates. Both academic and professional tracks were formally stipulated by the State Council’s regulations on degree setting in the last century and have been in effect since then. While the academic track has been fully known to the general public as with most other countries in the world, the professional track in China at the very beginning, around late 1990s, mostly catered to engineering programs to cultivate application-oriented manpower. But with the national initiative for higher education massification, the size of the professional track later rapidly expanded to cover a wider range of programs, recruit many more students and produce a multiplicity of graduates as well. Around ten years ago, the size of the professional track at master’s level, as with the academic track at the same level, also started to expand and recruit more applicants who already had a bachelor’s degree. And at doctoral level, both academic track and professional track have been provided education for applicants with a master’s degree, such as PhD and EdD respectively. Overwhelmingly, the progression routes between the academic track and the professional track within China’s degree system now are open and clear (Fig 1).

Fig 1.  Academic Track and Professional Track in China’s Current Degree System

However, another track, namely, the vocational track is in a relatively embarrassing situation. This track is exactly what HVE belongs to, but currently it only offers credentials at either postsecondary level (zhuan ke) or undergraduate level (ben ke). As a matter of fact, the vast majority of HVE institutions are eligible to grant their graduates a postsecondary-level certificate (zhuan ke) only, whereas merely a relatively small proportion of them are permitted to offer students a bachelor’s degree. No HVE institution is entitled to providing education at master’s level or doctoral level, and the end of vocational track is connected to neither professional track nor academic track. Although there are no articulated stipulations banning HVE graduates from pursuing a master’s degree at either academic or professional track, the likelihood for HVE graduates to be successfully enrolled by a graduate school of a university for a master-level study is extremely low given the relatively low social status of HVE and the vastly different curriculum system between vocational education and academic higher education. That means HVE graduates have to directly go to the labor market with either a postsecondary-level certificate or a bachelor’s degree only, but the credentials they hold do not provide them with sufficient competitiveness in either the academic market or the job market. As such, most HVE graduates take on jobs that stand on the low stream of the whole industry chain, hence indicating the ‘dead end’ of the vocational track.    

Drawing upon inspirations from the international experiences, this study proposes two ways to solve the dead-end problem of HVE for China and other countries with similar challenges.

One way is to extend the vocational education track to higher levels in and of itself. The country could make reference to the degree apprenticeship in the UK to launch master’s or even doctoral vocational education. Against the backdrop of the Industry 4.0 and given the tremendous demands that industrial revolution places on college graduates, there is no reason to believe that those with a bachelor’s degree only can grasp the state-of-the-art technology advancement and industrial innovations poignantly and deeply. This means that there is always necessity for learners to have further studies in the new times, either following the idea of lifelong learning proposed by UNESCO, or out of the response to the knowledge and skill demands required by the industry. The course contents of the master’s or doctoral vocational education will definitely be distinctive from those in the academic or professional track. Application, capability of solving complex authentic problems, and engaging in project-based tasks will certainly be the primary focus of higher-level vocational education.

The second way is to establish formal linkages between the vocational track and the other two tracks, so that HVE graduates will not be excluded from enrollment into the graduate schools of other four-year universities and colleges. With such pathways in place, the attractiveness of HVE can be significantly boosted in that more alternatives and opportunities to pursue further studies will motivate more high-quality school leavers to pursue vocational education. This will provide several obvious benefits for the HVE sector and beyond. Firstly, the quality of the overall HVE student body will be much enhanced. In the fullness of time, HVE will no longer be regarded as a destination for high school failures, but another sound option for high-school leavers to experience education different from the academic studies. Secondly, the overall brand of HVE will gradually rise with the enhancement of student body quality. The faculty and staff will be compelled to scale greater professionalism given more demands from the study body, and the sector as a whole will be able to draw more attention and resources from a wide range of stakeholders. Thirdly, the student body for other two tracks will also be further diversified when HVE graduates can join other applicants with academic backgrounds in pursuing master’s or doctoral studies. The higher education pluralism then will be based upon a more even landscape where all constituents, namely, academic students, professional students and vocational students, carry equally same weight. Fourthly and probably more importantly, the long-standing embedded social stereotype that academic education is superior to vocational education will be culturally changed. Vocational training will no longer amount to a secondary insignificant labor process, but is to be perceived as an equally or even more important educational process. In this manner, the craftsman spirit that has been sonorously called for will be fostered and nurtured not just out of individual sacrifice or short-term passion, but in an institution-supported systematic manner. As such, the long-standing aspiration for the non-discriminant education for all and the social justice can be ultimately actualized through the systematic orchestration of the degree system.

The proposed degree system to reinvent the higher education landscape is shown in the following Fig 2. 

Notes: 1. For graphically aesthetic purposes, the connections between the academic track and professional track are not embodied in this figure to avoid visual chaos. But the connections between these two tracks at various levels are as what is shown in Fig 1 by default, hence all the three tracks will be proposed to be interconnected; 2. A real arrow indicates pathways that already exist, while a dashed arrow indicates a proposed pathway.

Fig 2. The Proposed Open and Interconnected Triple Degree System


Against the backdrop of enlarged educational inequity and disparities brought about by the global higher education massification, this study has proposed a design of a triple system to enhance educational equity at the level of tertiary education. The case of China’s HVE was drawn upon due to its existing relative position in China’s overall higher education landscape, its urgent demand for the improvement of social status, and the necessity to establish more linkages and pathways to other educational tracks. The policy borrowing perspective was employed in the study, with experiences from Australia, Germany, France, the UK and international organizations (e.g., OECD) teased out in terms of students transiting from vocational education to academic higher education along their learning journey. As the international experiences indicate that pathways to more academic qualifications and involvement of multiple stakeholders work as very important means to enhance the attractiveness of vocational education, this study proposes that all the three tracks, integrating academic, professional and vocational degrees, should be interconnected with each other within one integrated degree framework, so that students learning in each of the three tracks have access to a higher-level learning opportunity in every track of the system.

The proposed triple degree system has its value in contributing to a more equitable higher education sector in several ways. From the perspective of learners, the enactment of the system allows for more diversified student mobility within the system, so that learners can have more open access to various types of knowledge and professionalism according to their own willingness in the times of knowledge economy at individual level. Mobility goes in companion with more options for learning opportunities according to one’s own will, hence in and of itself constituting a very important part of educational equity. Furthermore, the triple system also contributes to educational equity at systematic level. It weakens the perceived status distinction between the different educational tracks to a large extent, which lays the foundation for all tracks to be equally recognized by the general public. As a result, the interconnected and intra-connected pathways within the system empower higher education institutions to be more diversified in categories, versatile in contents and plural in choices, and help realize the historic and global dream of Education for All (有教无类), which is promoted by the 67th Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Annual Meeting in 2023!


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