EAS SAC Speakers Series Report: China’s Vocational Education Reforms and Tibetian Minority Students

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This report is written by senior undergraduate student Sherry Kim, a member of the EAS SAC Speakers and Workshop Committee. The content of this report is based on the lecture presented by Dr. Xia Luo, associate professor at the Southwest University for Nationalities and currently a visiting associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. The talk was co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology.

Dr. Xia Luo presented her study on the Sichuan provincial government’s “9+3” free vocational education program, which aims to bridge the poverty and education gap between Tibetan minorities and the Han majority populations of those residing in the area. Launched in 2009, the “9+3” program provides funding for 10,000 Tibetan students each year for acquiring three years of vocational education that go beyond the nine years of compulsory education, in largely Han-inhabited areas. The program covers the cost of students’ tuition as well as room and board.

Dr. Luo’s study investigates the reasons for the decline in enrollment for the “9+3” program since its initial inauguration. Although 10,000 students are supposed to apply for the program each year, enrollment has been steadily decreasing since 2010. By comparing the “9+3” program in Han-majority areas to the conventional vocational program already in place in Tibetan-majority areas, her research aims to identify the main reasons for decreased productivity and low-interest levels in the new policy.

Applying the theories of affirmative action and attempting to debunk the negative stereotypes surrounding Tibetan minority groups, Dr. Luo poses the following research question: Does the enrollment of the “9+3” program decline mainly because of a failure to break down negative stereotypes? Her study is broken down into two subsections. The first subsection of her study revolves around the question of whether negative stereotypes do indeed exist within the program. The research design of this study largely consists of interviewing educators, students, officers of the program, vocational schools, and government officials, among others. The second subsection is a comparative study between the program in Han-majority areas and the regular vocational program in Tibetan-majority areas to figure out whether negative stereotypes are indeed the main reason for gaps in enrollment figures.

The results of her study indicate that there is a poor relationship between Tibetan and Han students at these vocational schools. A very low percentage of Tibetan students in the “9+3” program are familiar with the Han language and culture. Approximately half of the Tibetan students struggle with the language and exhibit some semblance of hostility and phobia towards their new environment. Almost 80% of students wish that the school provided mental health counseling. Additionally, mixed classes and mixed dormitories have not reached the goal of promoting communication across ethnic groups. In fact, one of the interviewed teachers is said to have expressed the feeling that the Han and Tibetan students cannot get along with one another, and Tibetan students have lower academic standards, dragging the overall average down. All of this goes to show that there is indeed a level of active negative stereotyping taking place between and amongst students in the program. The results of the second comparative study also confirm that the Ganzi vocational schools better meet the demands and needs of Tibetan students than the “9+3” program.

In fact, the results of the study indicate that the Han majority’s negative stereotyping of Tibetan students may be further heightened in the “9+3” grogram because of its locational requirement. This prejudice may lead to neglecting other substantial barriers preventing Tibetan students’ school performance and post-graduation employment.