Compass set for new empire of vocational training

17th November 1995 at 00:00
Gunpowder and paper, the compass and printing were all invented by the Chinese, and at least three of them are in daily use at British colleges. A recent visit to China showed that we have other things to learn from them.

Vocational education is in the news over there, not least because the economy, driven by pulses of private money, is in such a dynamic stage of development that the skills required from the work force are no longer the ones taught in the schools.

Preparing people for a lifetime in repetitive, low-skill manufacturing, in accordance with top-down central plans is one thing, preparing people to take both responsibility and risks, to open both minds and new businesses is something else. They knew something about our market-driven college system, and wanted to know more.

They need no help in understanding how markets work, and any UK college business development managers planning to pop over and flog a few courses in entrepreneurial skills can save themselves the bother, the fare and the injections.

Almost every street has its market, where the forces of quality, availability and price are engaged in that subtle relationship which has eluded so many of our colleges. Free markets, banished in 1949, have been permitted in China only latterly, but the range and quality of the produce made the eyes of the horticulture expert in our group stand out like ripe plums.

Whether courses are really like cabbages and syllabuses akin to silk shirts we were unable to say: we have, after all, been fumbling about with markets only since incorporation in 1993. All the vocational schools we visited had commercial arms, sometimes described as factories. Here, students produced articles for sale, often to a contract. A railway vocational school in Xian, for example, ran an operation to supply the state railway system with spare parts; an electronics school had a nice product line in circuit boards.

These sales contribute to the schools' budget, and seem to generate a higher proportion of it than the college restaurants and hairdressing salons with which we are familiar. Perhaps, as with the compass, they can show us the way here too.

The Association for Colleges delegation, which spent two weeks in four Chinese cities, found much that was familiar, including the low status of vocational education, debates about whether we should provide teaching or organise learning, and uncertainty about whether the educational or the industrial influence should predominate in curriculum design.

We are perhaps a little ahead in the development of tourism studies. In most respects tourism, for Chinese vocational schools, means catering and hotel management. Given the stunningly obvious potential of the country to become the world's premier destination, there is enormous scope for programmes in all aspects of tourism from economics to languages, facilities-management to conservation, publicity to crowd control. Because crowds there are, tramping along the Great Wall, milling around the Forbidden City, and gaping at the Terracotta Army.

The Chinese have been good at death, and have turned it into an industry in its own right. Emperors used to plan their sepulchral arrangements from an early age, employ thousands of the best craftsmen to design and build their tombs and then to fill the whole thing up with beautifully-executed figures.

Hence the fully-equipped Terracotta Army, tooled up to frighten off any grave robbers. There are about 10,000 of them, the size of a middle-range UK college, and, despite their immobility, the Chinese find it no easier to count them.

If Sir William Stubbs, Further Education Funding Council chief executive, were in charge he would want to know not how many there are, but what they are doing: firing arrows, driving chariots or standing guard.

We were constantly asked to judge, to express an opinion about what we saw. Not easy to do, because, in seeing so much, we saw so little. The great dynastic emperors would have had similar problems, as their view of the world comprised carefully arranged landscapes glimpsed through small cloister windows.

What was apparent was confidence oozing from every pore, new buildings gushing up out of the ground, and a palpable sense of movement, of change welcomed. Within the vocational schools, hierarchical structures enabled managers to exercise control over impressively compliant students. How much pre-course guidance is provided is not clear, the induction process centres on a fortnight's high speed square bashing, but once on the course, nobody leaves.

Non-completion is a concept which leaves managers bemused and uncomprehending. The Chinese think that their vocational education is narrow in its technical, work-related parts, and they may be right, but their complementary studies are compulsory and more ambitious than ours. All students, in addition to the knowledge and understanding underpinning their main, technical, subject, have to undertake mathematics, a foreign language (usually English), Chinese and physical education and politics.

Assessment is terminal. They liked the sound of general national vocational qualifications, which they thought would give a broader, option-rich education, but they worried about knowing who was where, when and why. Student achievements are measured by examination results alone, and the quality of institutions by those results.

Particularly highly regarded schools are awarded 'key' status by the province and the very best receive national recognition. In Guangzhou about 5 per cent of schools had reached provincial 'key' class. The process is highly competitive, and successful schools can expect more money as a reward.

So there it is: a system on an enormous scale, to serve a country stretching from Siberia to the tropics, linked to an economy writhing with the strains of re-inventing itself, governed by a political system full of contradictions, populated with staff and students who are being encouraged to look at foreign ideas.

It is here that China's future will be decided. It is also clear that China has learned from its past. The Ming emperors, whose dynasty was overthrown half a millennium ago, built magnificent tombs for themselves, masterpieces on a monumental scale with features of exquisite craftsmanship, located in a valley of extreme beauty. But it was all a decoy. The bodies were actually buried somewhere else, as yet undiscovered. The equally monumental, equally impressive Chinese vocational education system is for real.

Michael Austin is the principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.

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