In the grand scheme of international education, vocational education and training tend not to feature much. More prestige is afforded to universities. But Chongqing – the fastest growing city in the world with a city population of 7 million and a municipality of 31 million – is showing a marked interest in vocational education. In Wales.
Maybe it’s because of our top quality teaching and learning here in Wales, maybe it’s thanks to governmental accords between the two of us. Or maybe it’s our dragon. The Chinese have been quick to remind us that they feel an affinity with Wales and its fellow dragon-lovers – and an auspicious red one at that.
Indeed, it was in 2012, the Year of the Dragon, that the relationship between Wales and Chongqing’s vocational education sectors started to take off, moving a formal Cooperation Agreement – a commitment to joint working on education and other matters signeda few years earlier – from paper into action.
By now, just over two years later, the number and type of learning opportunities between the two countries have encompassed all levels of further education (FE) in both Wales and China. Government officials, vocational college principals, managers, teachers and learners are benefiting from learning exchanges and senior level dialogue.
Wales’ colleges have collectively made 20 visits to China. Summer schools, A level partnerships, staff training, student learning and cultural exchanges, and senior level relationship building are all in the mix.
Most recently, in January 2014, six of Chongqing’s vocational schools brought a second delegation of staff to Wales as well as their first group of vocational students. The two-week visit was coordinated by CollegesWales (UK) International and hosted through a partnership of five colleges in Wales.
Reflections of the learners
At the farewell ceremony, held at CollegesWales’ Cardiff office, each of the Chinese learners reflected on the experience in a short presentation – delivered in very coherent and fluid English.
They ably demonstrated not only superior language and public speaking skills but also an ability to critically appraise the differences in learning styles and structures between their home institutions and those they had visited in Wales.
They reported that they were particularly taken by the highly practical nature of vocational courses here in Wales, and how theory and practice are blended into study programmes.
They were impressed that college tutors in Wales mentor, rather than simply instruct learners. Thinking skills, self-reflection and learning by doing were all remarked upon as revelatory by the Chinese students. They made it quite clear that they were rather envious of our teaching styles.
Not that the Chinese students showed any less of an ability to be insightful and critically evaluate their experiences in Wales.
They may well come from the fastest growing city in the most populous country and the second largest economy in the world and speak the world’s most spoken language, but they showed not a hint of self-aggrandisement. Rather, it was their ambition and hunger for learning that were most clearly in evidence.
Reflections for Wales
Just as in Wales and the rest of the UK, China affords more prestige to the lofty towers of academia than hands-on vocational colleges. But if the Chinese learners who visited Wales are anything to go by, the lack of glamour of a vocational college does not in the least constrain their ambitions or their aspirations.
Several of the learners already have plans to study for higher level qualifications, to attain registered professional status, and to study overseas.
Jingyi Chen, for example, a 19 year old student of therapy and rehabilitation at Chongqing City Management School, is already a confident speaker of English and two Chinese languages, and has her sights set on studying for a Masters Degree in South Korea. She shrugged at the notion that it might be a daunting prospect to have to learn yet another type of alphabet and a brand new language. It’s just a minor challenge that she expects to meet head on in her quest to get the best education in her chosen field.
I’m not sure about fire-breathing dragons, but it’s clear that these learners have fire in their bellies.
It’s not just their aspiration, determination or confidence that appears to drive these learners and which so impressed me, but also their matter-of-factness, of taking in their stride the need to move out of their comfort zone and take on challenges in order to reach their goals. Even being prepared, as vocational students, to learn new languages – something considered in the UK to belong much more to an academic learning pathway.
So whilst Wales may well have impressed them with our emphasis on blending theory and practice in our vocational provision, I wonder whether it is their emphasis on blending the study of a foreign language(s) with vocational programmes that should be making a real impression on us here in Wales.