As I arrived in Beijing at 6am after two hours of fitful sleep on the nine-hour flight, the face the city presented was very worrying for one due to host the Olympics in 44 days’ time.
Grey, muggy and polluted, I knew exactly why the giant factories on the outskirts of Beijing will be shut down in three days’ time.
A whirlwind series of briefings with British Council staff slid unmemorably past my matchsticked eyes before it was time to climb into a mini-bus for the “one-hour” trip to Tianjin – our conference destination.
The six of us who comprised the World Bank-sponsored delegation then endured a three-hour Friday evening peak traffic journey of 120 kilometres.
However, as a lifetime fan of Chinese food, I can honestly say the meal I enjoyed that evening was one of the best of a lifetime’s experience. And a WorldSkills colleague from Hong Kong who joined us commented that a similar meal in Hong Kong would have cost him 10 times more than the £4 each we paid.
The next morning, the first official briefing for our visit included a nametag welcoming the “honourable quest” [sic] to the China Vocational Education Reform and Development Summit Forum of the China Vocational Education Equipment and Technology Show. Never again will I criticise lengthy conference titles in the UK.
The event showed that the Chinese are taking skills competitions seriously, but their current caution over joining WorldSkills – they are not sure their best apprentices are yet at world standard – is probably wise. They may not be ready for WorldSkills in Calgary in 2009, but I’d put money on them being ready for the competition in London two years later.
What is certainly impressive is just how centre-stage China has put technical and vocational education in its current Five Year Plan. Targets of increasing the proportion of vocational students to 50% of both secondary and tertiary education are almost achieved. This is very impressive for a country of this scale whose vocational system was extremely weak only five years ago.
The direction of China’s planned reforms is sound: ‘from enrolment-oriented to employment-oriented’ ‘from content-focused to capacity-focused’ and ‘from government driven to market driven’.
But there are real challenges. Too few technically qualified teachers curricula not keeping track with industrial change and poor employer engagement – plus some clear ideological reservations about what sort of influence to offer to employers.
Lack of employer engagement is clearly holding Chinese skills efforts back. Yet while the general Chinese welcome to our World Bank team was very warm, the impeccably aligned messages of my two World Bank colleagues and I received only a tepid response.
Our proposals were based on pretty solid international experience – sector skills bodies, competency standards, modular, credit-based qualification frameworks that are market driven, funded on outcomes, linked to provincial economic development and held together through public-private partnerships.
But our shared feeling on departure was that these ideas we were simply pushing the Chinese ideological envelope too far too fast, and that such innovations were some way off yet.
Returning from Tianjin on Sunday evening for the flight home provided a final lesson for the occasional Chinese traveller – never drive to Beijing on a Sunday night. Every heavy goods vehicle in northern China was travelling to the city to deliver Monday morning’s supplies.
Pollution may remain a big problem, but in just over a month from now, the Chinese will have completed all the engineering, construction, logistics and hospitality requirements for a successful Olympics. That will be a true testament to the remarkable progress of their vocational education system.
Chris Humphries is chief executive of the Commission for Employment and Skills