Rejecting the elite

By Global Times – Agencies Source:Global Times – Agencies Published: 2014-11-28 5:03:01

Top student chooses vocational school over prestigious university

Zhou Hao during the competition Photo: Courtesy of the Beijing Industrial Technician College

Recently, Zhou Hao, a student in Beijing, became famous for an astonishing decision he made three years ago.

In late 2011, Zhou quit Peking University (Beida)'s School of Life Sciences and entered the Beijing Industrial Technician College. Many people were surprised by his choice. It seemed to them that he had thrown away his opportunity to obtain a prestigious degree from one of the country's top universities and his promising future as a scientist, instead choosing to be a technical apprentice at a little-known vocational school.

In China, sending your child to a vocational school is always the last choice for a parent, only an option if the child fails to get into a good school or institution of higher learning. The entry requirements of vocational schools are low and they are open to nearly all junior and high-school graduates.

Contestants compete in the sixth Chinese Numerical Control Competition held at the Beijing Industrial Technician College. Photo: Courtesy of the Beijing Industrial Technician College

Lost at the top

In the summer of 2008, after earning the fifth highest score on the college entrance examinations that year in Qinghai Province, Zhou was admitted into Beida. But this is not where Zhou wanted to be.

His first choice school was Beihang University, formerly known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, as he had loved taking apart and assembling electrical devices since childhood. "I dreamed of being a pilot when I was young and I liked planes. In high school, I was fascinated with making models. I always wished that one day I would be able to build a real plane," Zhou recalled in an interview with Beijing Evening News.

But his parents vetoed this idea, believing he would regret not applying for elite universities like Tsinghua or Beida. Zhou was forced to do what his parents wanted.

But his first year at the famous university turned out to be a miserable one. To him, the endless theoretical courses, heavy analytical assignments and mountains of data were like an ocean in which he was drowning. He felt like a misfit. "It's a school for academic and scientific research. But I like the practical application of science and have little interest in academics. School life was becoming boring to me," Zhou said.

He tried to find a way out. He went to science and engineering lectures in Beida and Tsinghua University. But to his disappointment, he could only attend lectures on theory, not application. He made plans to transfer to a different major, but was told that was only possible if he obtained enough academic credits on the general courses of both the School of Life Sciences and the school he wished to transfer to. However, the workload would have been impossibly heavy.

He sank into a pit of despair. He decided to take a year off from school in the hope that some real-world experience might be able to make him more assertive. In 2009, he went to Shenzhen and worked as a telephone operator and an iPhone camera installer. The experience was eye-opening for Zhou, who didn't have any professional skills and was a poor communicator. "I used to be so proud of being a Peking University student. But the reality is that others will not respect you because of where you come from, but for what your skills are," he said.

Making his own decisions

Zhou decided to return to his studies. He went back to Beida in 2010, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not make himself interested in life sciences. He skipped classes and even exams.

Instead, he found he had a growing interest in the subject of numerical control, a method of machine automation. By researching the sector in China and the world, he clearly saw what direction he should take. "I think China lacks interdisciplinary talents. In Germany, many technicians hold advanced academic degrees, but in China, technicians are usually poorly educated," Zhou was quoted as saying by China Youth Daily.

He decided to transfer to a vocational school. His parents finally agreed after being convinced that staying on at Peking University would only add to their son's misery.

"I used to value other people's views a lot. But if I had to do things that I dislike for my whole life, my life would be ruined," he told China Youth Daily.

In the winter of 2011, Zhou became a numerical control student at the Beijing Industrial Technician College in Chaoyang district, which currently has more than 4,000 students.

Zhou's arrival was big news for the school. "In order to enroll more students, we reduce or even waive tuition fees for students from rural areas. But even this has had little effect. The arrival of a Peking University student was, of course, earthshaking news," Yi Zhong, a senior official of the school, told China Youth Daily.

The school arranged for Zhou to have the best classes and teachers. Zhou returned these favors with hard work, making rapid progress. In early November this year he represented the school in the Chinese Numerical Control Competition.

Since then journalists' requests for interviews with Zhou and the school were refused. A female worker from the school's office told the Global Times that Zhou had come under a great deal of pressure after being in the media spotlight and hoped to keep a low profile until the competition results were announced early December.

Setting an example

Many people have supported Zhou for his bold choice, which defied convention wisdom in China. Bian Guangchun, an online critic, said Zhou deserves respect for his perseverance. "Being yourself, there might be more risky, but it is more wonderful," he said in an opinion piece written for the Xinhua News Agency.

The Wuhan-based Changjiang Daily said that Zhou had set a good example to a society dominated by materialism, where parents often insist their children become scientists, teachers or civil servants rather than ordinary workers or farmers. "Only when we get rid of identity attributes, social prejudice and stereotypes and have the right to make our own decisions, will society be liberated and make progress," said its commentary.

However, Wang Fuzhong, a postdoctoral economics student at Peking University, said on his Weibo that Zhou was naive and still incapable of understanding university education. "He will regret [his choice]," he said.

Cheng Zhenwei, another online critic, said that Zhou's decision speaks to the flaws of China's higher education system which churns out graduates with "high scores and low abilities." "We need to build more top-class vocational schools that can compete with Tsinghua and Beida. This way, the tragedy of Zhou Hao will not be repeated," Cheng said in a commentary published on

Global Times - Agencies

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