The opportunities for those in Britain involved in China’s education sector are immense if certain actions are undertaken, writes Neil Carmichael, former British Member of Parliament and Chair of the Education Select Committee.
Each year, over fifteen million babies are born in China. This means the number of children in the early years bracket alone is the same as the entire the population of the United Kingdom.
Another startling fact is the scale of trade already taking place between Europe and China – the trade between the two regions is greater than any other comparable trade flow; somewhat predictably Germany is on the front foot, with China its largest export market (the intensity of Germany’s investment in China is consistent with such activity).
One other noteworthy observation is the extraordinary appetite for new technologies on open display in virtually every large Chinese city. In short, a growing population, with a rapidly increasing consumer spending power and a future orientated attitude to progress, characterises the China of today.
And this China has a paced and managed plan for education. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – so often mistaken as being ‘just’ a modern silk road trade strategy is, in fact, also a policy architecture for education, health and other domestic policies. This does not mean all policy is trade friendly – some aspects of education are, essentially, protected for Chinese decision makers alone – but being aware of priorities and opportunities through public policy is hugely advantageous.
Two cultural issues should be taken into account, especially with education. Firstly, relationships are crucially important; business meetings and negotiations are best undertaken after trust is established and friendships forged. Second, the family is central to Chinese life and this extends to being reflected in the approach to business – partnerships and agreements are understood as family-like structures. The many festivals and celebrations are often opportunities to develop and strengthen associations.
There is a keen awareness to understand how UK experience can create a learning environment where creativity and communications skills flourish
When I was Chair of the Education Select Committee, I had a keen interest in international economics and politics and the exchange of ideas between China and the West. Having noted as a younger man the efforts to engage with China as early as Prime Minister Edward Heath’s visits in the 1970s, I have witnessed the relationship grow closer ever since – and with ever-increasing intensity. There has been an improving atmosphere for developing trade links which continued throughout my time in the House of Commons. The frequency of delegations of various forms and levels of seniority increased throughout my time in Parliament (2010 to 2017) with several Chinese delegations during my tenure notably determined to learn more about the education system in the UK.
Indeed, Chinese firms in high-tech sectors – notably robotics and artificial intelligence – are interested in education for many reasons. In the short-term, the links are with research institutions and universities, especially in student exchanges (UK immigration policy has been an obvious sticking point) but there is also a keen awareness, for example, to understand how UK experience can create a learning environment where creativity and communications skills flourish. More public policy influenced inquiries are about the delivery of specific projects – increasing nursery provision is popular – and, unsurprisingly, leveraging additional investment.
Investment in education is, in the first instance, about providing learning opportunities for people and this usually manifests itself in people moving; with the typical direction of travel towards the UK. This is ‘exporting education’ in a most basic way and, as the Education Select Committee indicated in 2017, movement restrictions are, essentially, trade dampeners.
Increasingly, however, there is a massive market for building and running UK schools in China. The independent sector is doing exactly this and, by extension, training teachers, including Chinese nationals, is part of the package. One slightly tricky question is about the ‘transferability’ of trained teachers and qualifications, although the latter area is being increasingly answered by the ever-adaptable UK assessments industry. China is now also putting a spotlight on vocational and technical training as, indeed, are many other Asian countries.
With a global slowdown effectively underway and growth figures for most large economies rather lower than hoped for, China’s figure of six percent remains buoyant by comparison – even if there are justifiable doubts about forward growth. However, emerging economies – China is one – do tend to have more economic slack and, in any event, it should be remembered that over the previous two centuries the UK averaged a growth rate of just two percent. More worryingly for the UK (if not China), is the strengthening of regional trade links across Asia with Beijing very much in the driving seat.
Opportunities in Chinese education are numerous. To seize them, UK investors must acquaint themselves with the prevailing policies and delivery mechanisms while, simultaneously, pushing forward with new ideas that appeal to an economy and society very much geared to modern solutions but still firmly rooted in cultural traditions, all underpinned by a sophisticated institutional memory.
Neil Carmichael is a senior adviser at communications agency PLMR, CEO of UCEC and Adviser to FN Robotics. He is a former member of the British Parliament, Chair of the Education Select Committee and a frequent visitor to China.