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Planning ahead. A guest wears a badge during a networking event for professionals from China's creative industries. Photo ©

FCO, October 2009, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 and adapted from the original.

MAy 2016

Many analysts believe the size of China’s economy could overtake the US in the next few years. Carma Elliot, Director of the British Council in China, analyses the new Chinese Five-Year Plan to ask how the UK can benefit from working with the country, particularly in education, as it approaches this milestone in its history.

Yet its modern face of skyscrapers, gleaming airports, and lunar exploration looks increasingly at odds with the parallel reality of unequal development and groups who feel increasingly disenfranchised

The past two decades have brought China remarkable prosperity. In terms of purchasing power, and despite slowing growth, the $11 trillion economy is now poised to retake its traditional place as the world’s biggest for the first time since the 19th century. Yet its modern face of skyscrapers, gleaming airports, and lunar exploration looks increasingly at odds with the parallel reality of unequal development and groups who feel increasingly disenfranchised. China’s 13th Five-Year Plan is President Xi’s first and as such an important indicator of policy direction under his leadership. It also presents an opportunity to analyse the country’s development strategy at this milestone in its development - and to examine its implications for the UK. 

A plan for prosperity

Five-Year Plans are not just important in showing the Chinese government’s priorities and setting a direction for more specific policies at a provincial and regional level. Their growth and sectoral targets have major impacts on the overall business environment and the direction of future growth in different sectors. 

Not unlike previous blueprints, boosting innovation - particularly through increased funding for science and technology - is still seen as key to driving growth across all sectors. What is new and significant is a clear attempt to link the skills agenda, the workplace, and research communities, as a means to boost innovation and the application of research - and to do so in cooperation with foreign partners.

The emphasis on better access to quality education and a push to develop skills for employment reflect a desire to maintain social stability and create jobs and opportunity. Education reforms and the education sector’s response to these new imperatives will underpin China’s ability to move towards an economy increasingly driven by consumption and with greater equity for all. They will also underpin China’s ability to accomplish its ambitions of becoming a “moderately well off“ society by 2020; creating more than 50 million new jobs - mainly in services; and doubling average annual incomes from 2010 levels by 2020. 

This is particularly important given that the next few years are likely to see China become a middle income country, while seeking to avoid the so-called “middle-income trap” of GDP per capita levelling off at rates below those seen in advanced economies. To do so it seeks to become somewhere where all citizens benefit from growth and which is more inclusive for marginalised communities, including the estimated 170 million people still living below the poverty line. 

Educating China

Reforms in basic education continue apace: students in poor areas should now benefit from better facilities and staff; nine years of compulsory education up to the age of 15 will be free to access; and 90 per cent of students will be encouraged to stay on into high school. Increasing numbers of students will be eligible for reduced or zero fees, in order to push up enrolment and foster a more skilled and competitive workforce.

There are now nearly 600,000 Chinese graduates from the UK back in China, a significant sphere of positive influence for the sector across China

There is a clear call in the Five Year Plan for greater private sector investment and engagement within education. The move towards more efficient operating models by engaging the private sector more explicitly and encouraging entrepreneurial spirit at all levels of education is a development from which the UK stands to benefit as a strong existing partner, and one with an offer aligned to China’s needs. This is an area where there is clearly a wider interest in China in partnering with the UK, which is seen as a beacon of high quality education at all levels. There are now nearly 600,000 Chinese graduates from the UK back in China, a significant sphere of positive influence for the sector across China. For example, Xiao Dun who studied in the UK and recently received the Entrepreneurial Award at the British Council’s 2016 Education UK Alumni Awards in Beijing - said: “My parents could have given me a house, a car, or some money – but they gave me the opportunity to study in the UK, and that was priceless.”

Furthermore, the UK’s sectoral strengths, interests, and ambitions are closely aligned with China’s own development plans. China is aiming to build world-class universities with an increased focus on climbing up world rankings in specific disciplines which support economic innovation. That alignment spans across research, science and innovation, to providing a richer, all-round student experience and qualifications that prepare students better for the workplace. 

China is also attempting to re-align vocational education to the needs of industry through a dual-professional workforce, qualification frameworks and accreditation, industry engagement, modern apprenticeships, and more flexible learning pathways between academic and vocational disciplines. These are also areas in which the UK is seen as having rich experience to share and with opportunities for institutional partnerships which respond to need in specific sectors (e.g. hospitality).  

Furthermore, China is seeking to narrow the gap between its more developed urban areas and the poorer western and rural areas (with added impetus provided by the “Belt and Road Initiative” looking to link western China with up to 65 countries - reaching as far west as the UK and as far South as East Africa). Again, this heralds increased opportunities for the UK in Western China across education, whether for English teaching, teacher training, vocational or higher education. 

Together with a wide range of UK partners across Government and the education sector, the British Council in China is therefore looking to address opportunities arising from the Five Year Plan. This spring’s UK-China Education Policy Week in Beijing, which attracted more than 1,000 professionals from both countries, discussed ‘excellence, entrepreneurship and employability’ and those areas of the new Plan that play directly to the UK education sector’s strengths. 

There is already a strong, shared commitment from both countries - from governments, institutions, and individuals - to drive collaboration. And this autumn, the annual UK-China Education Summit will be held in China. The shared objective will be to address common challenges and explore opportunities in the bilateral education relationship with energy and ambition, playing to the strengths of both countries for the benefit of both. 

Carma Elliot, Director China, British Council

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