Sally Dicketts is group chief executive of Activate Learning and has recently returned from a visit to two technical colleges in China. This comment was featured by The Guardian on 14 January, 2014.

From any perspective China is a dynamic and fascinating country.

With a population of 1.3 billion, it is now the second largest economy and is increasingly playing an important and influential role in the global economy.

Its rapid economic ascendance has brought many challenges – including issues of inequality, rapid urbanisation and environmental sustainability. And despite its growth, it remains a developing country.

But what can it teach providers in the UK when it comes educating our young people, and forging links to meet the needs of industry and employers?

Having recently visited the province of Nanjing, and spent time at two technical colleges there, I returned with the following observations.

Industry partnerships

Industry partnerships are among the healthiest I have seen. While this isn’t true of all colleges, the best have joint venture arrangements which see employers training their own staff within college facilities, and shaping the education, skills and qualifications that their future employees receive.

At Nanjing Technical College this included a joint venture with Siemens Bosch, a major employer in the area. The venture has funded a new training centre, where students, vocational trainers and Siemens Bosch employees work alongside one another developing skills and utilising the very latest technology.

The benefit for the employer is that local engineering students emerge with skills tailor-made to meet their needs, and the employer is able to recruit the very best graduates.

This is a model developing in the UK, particularly through the emergence of University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools. However the sheer volume of people in China means that relationships between education and employment are already very different.

In the UK, an employer such as BMW has two training centres, run independently by the organisation. In China the same employer has also set up a training centre within a vocational college to ensure that its future workforce meets the standards it requires.

Why have they taken that decision? Partly because the college is further ahead and partly because of demographics. Nanjing is about the same size as the whole of the UK and for a European company such as BMW there is a real value in partnering with a college where the majority of students also live on site.

Whatever the motivations, there are aspects we can learn from. The result of this very close working relationship is that students are expected to operate much more commercially, at a level and pace found in the real-world manufacturing and production environments. They become used to a faster pace and develop the industry, and employer-specific skills, which means they can hit the ground running once employed.

The relationship also promotes a much greater sense of competition. Employers such as BMW select a small number of students (15 to 20) for an intensive, employment focused course that is likely to lead straight to employment. These students enjoy a sense of kudos and benefit from smaller class sizes. They also know that it they don’t focus and commit themselves, then they will go back onto the mainstream full-time course and that another student will take their place. This creates a heightened sense of motivation and also means that students become extremely employment focused.

At our colleges we are increasingly building an employer-endorsed curriculum which reduces the skills gap that often exists between education and employment. As this model continues to grow in the UK, the Chinese model offered good practice which is further advanced, and which reflects the rapid rate at which Chinese industry is growing.

Ways of learning

Where teaching was closely aligned with the needs of the employer, methods of teaching and learning were also a real strength. Students took high levels of responsibility for their own learning and understood commercial parameters of delivering work to a high standard and to agreed deadlines.

In Nanjing some students were involved in a commercial business operation making and selling circuit boards to industry. This business operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the proceeds were split between those students working in the business, and the college.

This is a model developing here, particularly through the learning companies pioneered by members of the Gazelle Colleges Group. As more students become involved in commercial operations, from running salons and spas to gyms and public car parks, we need to look at the implications of being truly commercial. If we want to ensure our students are work-ready, then they need to understand the drivers of supply and demand and work to a very different timetable than those operated by most schools and colleges.

What I also observed in China were instances where vocational teaching was truly rooted in vocational skills. The focus was on becoming an expert in your craft rather than an expert in academic writings about your craft. In the UK, as well as in much China, we maintain a bias towards academia which stems from the days of Socrates and which was only ever designed to support higher level thinking skills. China is now aware that it needs to focus on building its technical workforce, and this is serving to raise the profile of skills and training by making links with really first-rate employers.

The future

This was my second visit to China and what surprised and impressed me the most was the pace of change.

Things have changed tremendously since my last visit in 2006 and while the UK still leads the way in terms of educational models, we must stay ahead of the curve or soon be left behind.