Confucius and chips

December 1, 1995

They will be dancing in the streets of the Chinese capital Beijing tonight, as they do every night. There will be long, sinuous serpentine dragon dances in the quiet squares, and, in the underpasses, middle-aged couples will clasp each other as they waltz and valeta until bed time, to the music from a portable cassette player.

Some people will stop to watch, but most will pass on by, finding nothing more remarkable in the sight than they do in the early morning exercises, notably Tai Chi and shadow-boxing, which are habitually performed in public. For foreign visitors, among them a group of open-mouthed senior college managers from British colleges, the mingling of Qin dynasty dances with quicksteps, East with West, neatly illustrates one of the core paradoxes of China.

The Association for Colleges was invited to bring the first ever delegation from British colleges to look at, and comment upon, the Chinese system of vocational education. In particular, the Chinese state education commission is reviewing the place of technical education and training in a context of accelerating social and economic change, and against a background of an historical emphasis upon high-status academic provision. For how much longer, for example, can the central government lay down the curricula to be taught, the number of students to be recruited, and even the ways in which the students are to be instructed?

Given that power and influence is slipping away from Beijing towards the provinces and the large towns, de facto devolution cannot be long delayed. That process gets more marked as you go south, into the special economic development zones.

In Shanghai and Guangzhou, capitalism is rife, and the need for a wholesale reform of vocational education is urgent. As the shift is made from a command economy to a free market (and by some measures China already has a higher proportion of gross domestic product in the private sector than France), versatility and adaptability of the work force is essential.

The Chinese system has been, as they acknowledge, narrow in scope, designed to fit workers to life-long jobs. You could argue that the economy is running away with the political system, and has already outstripped the education service. Private schools are planned in Guangzhou, joint ventures in education have been agreed with, among others, Australia, Canada and Belgium.

As the Chinese open up to the West, they must surely reflect on their history. No less cultured and sophisticated than the better class of Athenians who were their contemporaries, the Chinese had developed technologies to process raw materials and to turn them to functional advantage while we were still baking mud pies.

Exhibits in their museums show that great technical leads can be lost, that they in turn influenced and were influenced by others, that new ideas and products travelled along the Silk Road in both directions.

Dynastic emperors believed that China was at the centre of the world, that the meridian ran through the Forbidden City in Peking and that, by and large, foreigners from the periphery were to be despised. The humiliations of the 19th century, when China lost wars with, primarily, Britain and France and had to succumb to the forcible import of opium, the ceding of Hong Kong, and the granting of access to ports such as Shanghai did nothing to reduce fear and suspicion of foreigners.

So, there we were, fixing them with our glittering eye, and talking about the flexibility, the responsiveness and the diversity of British colleges, about competence-based assessment, and about industry-led standards. They, in turn, were showing us large classes of spectacularly studious young people in some formidably well-equipped institutions. Money from the World Bank, money from Chinese expatriates and money from local companies provided an enviable environment for learning, but the emphasis, all of it, was on teaching.

Banks of new computers were used for teacher-directed activities, and not available for private study; English, widely taught in vocational schools, was uttered in unison; large groups of caterers stood motionless in the courtyard, their heels on a book and a tray balanced on their head. The dilemma for the Chinese is clear: how can they reconcile their traditional values of obedience and respect for authority, for order and for conformity, with these radical notions about empowering students, treating them as customers, and dispensing with courses in favour of individual programmes? And if these new, western nostrums are right for vocational education, even necessary because of the pulling power of the dynamic market economy, does that mean that they are also appropriate for higher education?

Vocational schools are beginning to develop advanced courses in conjunction with universities, and senior managers are worried that pedagogical methods, already thought to be barely adequate for delivering the equivalent of craft level courses, will be wholly inappropriate for higher level stuff. They asked whether there was any chance of a joint venture to establish an academy of excellence in the practice of vocational education? We visited one such, in Shanghai, where Germany has invested heavily. The German expert spoke resignedly about the low status of vocational education and reckoned it would take at least a decade to turn public perceptions round, helped by a system of compulsory in-service training funded by an earmarked part of the budget (about 1.5 per cent), amounting to 500 hours per person over three years. No in-service, no prospects.

Dirigisme versus enterprise, compulsion alongside liberalisation, central control vitiated by local autonomy, these are cultural issues, not matters which are right or wrong, outmoded or modern. To mention the juxtaposition of a luxury hotel and a pavement cafe offering to kill and cook caged coypus and snakes for the pleasure of your palate is not to make some misplaced, cheap point about primitive ideas surviving anachronistically, rather to note the diversity and plurality of a complex society.

We can teach the Chinese only if we can also learn from them, as we have so often done before. Most of the Chinese way of thinking about the world goes back to Confucius, despite the still-continuing, pervasive control of the Communist Party, whose senior representatives attended the significant meetings of our visit.

Confucius, who was a near-contemporary of Socrates, taught the importance of balance, of seeking harmony between opposing forces, push and pull, Yin and Yang. A bringing together of opposites, face to face, a shared understanding of how they may engage with each other, an agreement on co-ordinating movement, and a concerted response to the stimulus of harmony would pass for a description of dancing.

Perhaps that is why they are doing it so devotedly in Beijing.

Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, led last month's first official visit to China by British further education college principals.

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