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If progression works in China, why not here?

These reflections are made in a particular context, in turn shaping a set of perspectives. Having only just returned from China, my commentary is on the prospects for Scottish further and higher education colleges in China - with some home thoughts generated by external experience.

Travelling alongside the official Scottish delegation to China two weeks ago, it was very pleasing to hear the emphasis on the "education product" given by the First Minister, and the sector should be grateful for his interest and visible support.

But there are great challenges in this market of the greatest potential and we must be fully aware of the competition that exists. Equally, we will have to be confident that we have the right product at the right time for the Chinese market - and at a level beyond self-comforting rhetoric which is based on actual performance.

Scotland values its reputation in education. But the weight of history carries little interest or significance in China, where there never has been a colonial connection and a subsequent empathy with our systems and their products. Rather, our shared history, certainly the recent one, is of a warming up of a Cold War climate.

We do have certain contemporary features capable of weighing heavily in our favour. We are as a nation very proud of the integrity of our education.

The quality of our vocational education is high and its applicability to the context of a dynamic and developing Chinese economy is certain. Here colleges, in particular, can develop brand identity around the concept of a particular set of Scottish products. However, for any individual institution and also for a small nation, there has to be an enhanced degree of co-ordination and promotion.

The opportunity exists for a Scottish rebranding, emphasising the nature of the vocational education product and redefining a role for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. In particular, the SQA should move away from being a co-deliverer in the market and restore itself to its intended role as a validation agency able to endorse the quality of the Scottish product.

We should be looking at presenting through the colleges a vocational product which has cachet in the Chinese market because of its content and the flexibility of its delivery mode. The Chinese market has moved away from simple transmission of students overseas and the onus on Scottish colleges is to devise methodologies by which in-country delivery can be effected through partnerships with Chinese institutions and other British institutions, particularly universities.

Through Scotland's colleges, we can make a distinct contribution to Chinese development, and at the same time generate enormous business for the colleges. The two-year HND is an effective vehicle in itself but would have perhaps a better market profile if redesignated as a set of foundation degrees. If we followed this path, the shift is more than semantic because it would require a closer validation relationship between the colleges and universities.

In the context of a sector being drawn more tightly together by dint of a proposed single funding council, this would be a meaningful development. It would also enable us to present a portfolio of joined-up products to the Chinese market - entry to Scottish higher education and progression, if desired, to universities.

We have a distinctive contemporary and competitive advantage in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, but only if we can actually use it. In theory, the SCQF system recognises and enables progression into the third year of degrees by students achieving HND. In domestic terms, only a minority, and certainly not half, of Scotland's universities will process this credit transfer. This is a problem around which we are in denial. Unless we actually identify the reality of the issue and look for a common solution, we will continue to have a domestic dispute that will spill over into confusion in the international market.

Will we be hypocritical and allow progression for overseas students, on the basis of progression by payment? This would be nonsense and an injustice to our Scottish students. In this context, the SQA's professed progression "deal" with its partners in China, with HND students allegedly admitted to final-year degree study, smacks of the validator becoming counterfeiter.

How did we get into this mess? First, let's admit the reality of the problem. Second, let's remind ourselves that the integrity of our education exports depends on integration. And, third, let's act in concert, with institutions doing what they do best, delivering courses and progression, and with validating agencies staying with the "day job".

In these ways, we have prospects for colleges in the Chinese market.

Otherwise . . .

Bill Wardle is principal of James Watt College in Greenock.

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