Where vocational training makes dim sums

9th May 2003 at 01:00
IT took a visit to China to help unravel some of the world's most ancient and enduring mysteries - such as how many Chinamen it takes to change a light bulb. The answer, four, was provided by workers at Shangai airport.

One man stood on top of the moveable platform to reach the light bulbs, none of which appeared faulty. Another pushed the platform from perfect bulb to perfect bulb. A third called out instructions from a manual. The fourth simply stood and watched, perhaps checking that the replacement was being done in an ideologically correct fashion.

In fact, the whole country appeared to be in the grip of a vast job creation scheme. Wherever possible, airport, hotel and office floors had been laid in highly polished marble which needed an army of cleaners pushing wide-bottomed polishers to keep them shiny. Glass partitions had been erected in pointless places just so that someone could polish and wash them.

In one of the most exciting 15-minute spells I can recall, I watched a piece of useless glass being polished by a young woman, washed and dried by a young man, inspected by someone with a clipboard and polished again by a different young woman. All the tasks were performed with the level of enthusiasm normally seen only in dentists' waiting rooms.

This is clearly the result of government full-employment policy.

Apparently, following China's liberalisation, vast armies of unemployed secret police became taxi drivers. The streets are now clogged with taxis, but the drivers all know where you live. But, as always, for every ancient mystery solved, a new riddle was created.

Beijing is full of vast apartment blocks stretching to the horizon. From the window and balcony of each one hangs a line of uninspiring washing. How come, in a country famous for its laundries? Has the Orient no concept of an integrated washer-dryer? The streets are full of Volkswagens, all fitted with an extra horn where the brake should be. Drivers are afraid to stop in case they finally start the citywide gridlock they know will happen one day. Instead, they do anything to keep moving, leaning on their horns the whole time.

Not a single one of these honking VWs was a Golf, however. VW's best-selling model in Europe was completely eclipsed in China by VWs ugliest effort, the Jetta saloon. Did the government get a job lot? Can we have the salesman who pulled off this stunning coup over here to market further education? And why all the fuss about Sars? We have been coping with Self Assessment Reports for years with a relatively low casualty rate.

But perhaps the biggest mystery is why the world's largest and only remaining serious communist country should have the most elitist of education systems. Our delegation met a very elegant Chinese professor at Beijing University ("We like to call it Peking," he said, "because that is a name with more history attached to it.") who spoke excellent and very precise English. He told us that there were 40 universities in Beijing (population circa 17 million) but that his was number one. "Only the very best students are admitted here," he said.

"Each year, 75 per cent of candidates fail the nationwide admissions examination. The top 0.2 per cent of those who pass come here," he beamed.

We asked if candidates could try again. "Oh yes," he said, with no trace of irony. "There is no limit on how many times a person can fail."

So we asked about further education, and it turns out there are tens of thousands of community colleges offering vocational programmes of all sorts to all comers, or at least to all comers who can afford it. "Not many people choose these colleges, however," said our precise professor, "because in China there is a prejudice against vocational education."

So, in a country which needs vocational skills in huge numbers, the people see skills training as a route to low wages and a lifetime of drudgery.

Well how novel!

Among the rural young there is now a wave of disaffection that dwarfs our problems. China's answer is to fund the army of low-paid sweepers, polishers and light-bulb changers I saw everywhere I went.

There is undoubted wealth in China. The cities have 80 per cent of it, although only 15 per cent of people live in them. If it ever gets its act together, and it clearly intends to - a compulsory English-speaking programme for every schoolchild, for example - it will be an overwhelming world economic force.

For the moment, we should be grateful that we do not have job creation schemes here - except, of course, for the Office for Standards in Education.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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