CBBC Insights: Education | A golden era for UK-China education - but don’t let it fade

18/01/2016
CBBC Insights: Education | A golden era for UK-China education - but don’t let it fade

CBBC Insights: Education | A golden era for UK-China education - but don’t let it fade

 

 

By Simon Stewart
Director, Education, Training & Talent (China)
China-Britain Business Council

 
Lord Willetts, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, spoke at a British Chamber of Commerce in China and British Council event in Beijing this month on the “golden era” in education for the UK and China. His address to the education community outlined four key growth areas and raised some of the main challenges they may face.
 
First he discussed student exchange, the most prominent element of cooperation in this field, saying that the many thousands of Chinese students studying at the UK’s top universities constitute a firm platform for developing the relationship further. However, he also highlighted the considerable opportunities presented by less-renowned universities and niche courses that, although lower in the rankings, provide outstanding education in specialist subject areas. Coventry University’s strength in automotive engineering and their link with Jaguar Land Rover, Harper Adams University’s specialism in modern agriculture and Bournemouth University’s media and film focus were cited as examples of where Chinese students could gain core skills which have value in their home market.  
 
The subject of UK students travelling to China was also addressed, with Lord Willetts pointing out that there are currently fewer than 8,000 British students in China and that there is room for growth. Chinese officials often state their desire to see more British students in China, he said, and their number is already being boosted by the teaching of Mandarin in UK schools, established platforms such as the British Council’s Generation UK and new initiatives such as Huawei’s China internship programme. 
 
Secondly, Lord Willetts spoke about British universities establishing campuses in China, such as the University Nottingham in Ningbo and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, saying that he would welcome similar moves by Chinese universities in the UK, where they could benefit from the UK’s research base, teaching methodology and established links with industry. The UK, he pointed out, is regarded as being extremely open to Chinese investment, and while this is contentious in some quarters, it is seen as beneficial in today’s international education field. China is an increasingly important player in global business, research and education, and closer links with the UK would be advantageous to both countries.
 
From campus development, Lord Willetts turned to online education, citing the UK’s fast-growing FutureLearn massive open online course (MOOC) platform, which has enabled universities to reach students across China and to take British courses to them in a way that was previously not possible. Educational technologies such as this, he said, should be supported as a means to broaden access.
 
Finally, Lord Willetts touched on research, introducing the government’s Newton Fund, a programme to help partners of the UK to develop economically by improving their science and innovation skills. The fund, he said, builds understanding between researchers, breeds new ideas and facilitates long-term international research. It is already actively supporting research in a number of critical areas such as life sciences and advanced engineering and is expanding further to incorporate a broader range of research areas including social sciences. Sustainable growth, as achieved by innovation and R&D, is a key tenet of Chinese government policy and it is a necessary factor if China is to move towards a higher-value economy and tackle challenges such as pollution and demographic change. Lord Willetts asserted that there is an important role here for universities from both countries.
 
 
A CBBC perspective
The optimism among the education community was evident from Lord Willetts’ speech and the proceeding discussion with British Chamber of Commerce members. The “golden era” will not last indefinitely, however, and achieving any lasting benefit will depend on how companies can overcome challenges facing the sector. 
 
Rankings remain a key factor in choosing a university and Lord Willetts acknowledged that whilst smaller niche courses may deliver excellent education, reputation remains very important to both students and parents. The reality remains that a qualification from a top-five university has real currency with businesses in China and abroad, and there was consensus in the room that this will remain a considerable challenge for smaller universities competing to recruit students in the market.    
 
However, whilst the top universities will always be popular, they can only hold a finite number of students. The opportunity and challenge for smaller universities is to put together a compelling proposition for Chinese students and to find effective channels to reach and attract them. In a fiercely competitive market, this may be best achieved through clearer differentiation and a shift of their focus beyond the Tier One cities.  Successfully entering the Chinese market often requires UK organisations to find their niche and dedicate their limited time and resources to this. This is far more effective than competing against the larger organisations in the big cities.
 
Generating more interest from UK students who want to study in China also presents opportunities for British educational institutions to build stronger links. They can open students’ eyes to new possibilities; apart from the personal buzz of living in Asia, they also gain a new perspective on business while spending time in a fast-growing economy in which entrepreneurship and innovation are being promoted, and where there is a desire to start producing higher-value products and services. Moreover, as ambitious and wealthy Chinese companies expand into global markets over the next 10 years, it is highly likely that even if they stay at home, British students graduating in the next few years will be working with Chinese firms and people in the UK. Huawei is a prominent example, but is not alone.
 
The key trends of innovation, entrepreneurship and international cooperation are also driving China’s research programmes. The Newton Fund and CBBC’s Accelerating Innovation and China Outbound programmes are examples of the drive for greater Sino-UK collaboration in research, innovation, commercialisation and finance. Resolving global issues such as environmental and demographic change requires an international research effort that is commercially sustainable and scalable.
 
To summarise, this golden era presents an excellent opportunity in which UK educational institutions and businesses can accelerate their activity in China. However, the UK will not benefit passively; rather it is an opportunity for institutions and businesses to forge partnerships with China and to make the most of the current period of goodwill. It will require a deep understanding of the challenges, and clear business plans that focus resources on, and fulfil the needs of, a niche segment of the market. In the new China, it is only those companies that engage proactively on which some of this gold may rub off.
 
To learn more about this subject or how your business can further engage with China, please contact the author: simon.stewart@cbbc.org.cn

18/01/2016