16 April 2012
I am just starting week 2 of a trade delegation visit to China led by the Mayor of Auckland, Len Brown. A number of sectors are involved – business, infrastructure, film and the creative industries, tourism and education. The education group reflects the major tertiary providers in Auckland.
There remains high interest in China still with education but again I am struck by the phenomenal growth at the tertiary level. Guangzhou and Ningbo have both rehoused universities into precincts of astonishing proportions. In Guangzhou an entirely new university town the size of Palmerston North has been created within the city. Brilliantly designed, beautifully landscaped, artistically enhanced by major public art and sculptures, by lakes and beautiful trees, by contour and perspectives. There are no half measures in these developments.
It all reflects a level of sophistication that one would expect in a country with a long history of scholarship and formal education. But there are changes – graduate unemployment is starting to become an issue, skill shortages in the middle levels are appearing and still the contrasts between the vibrant high growth east coast of China and the rest of the country are marked.
But I am possessed with a more fundamental question. In a country in which development of both buildings and infrastructure is in your face at every turn I am led to ask: Who trains all the skilled people required to keep this amazing show on the road?
I stay in hotels where the toilets work and the taps run, the lights go on and the services are delivered. I travel along roads and motorways, over bridges including the second longest bridge in the world. I eat fine food. All of these require skilled plumbers, road builders, electricians, hospitality staff, catering people and so on. There is in China a vast number of skilled people doing all these things, working in the trades and getting it right.
Why then, I am led to ask, do countries like Australia and New Zealand focus so strongly on the degree market and by comparison ignore the skilled trades area – the skilled middle level qualifications that supply the technical skill needed to run the wires, build a road, pour the concrete and generally do the bidding of the “degreed” people sitting in their offices.
Both New Zealand and Australia have excellent trades training systems, different but each in their own way excellent. And the tradespeople that come out of this system are excellent in world terms. Why do we not see activity from these countries tackling more aggressively the training in skill areas, in the trades?
The answer to this is threefold.
We do not actually value trades training to the same extent as we do degree training. When I speak with Chinese educators about this they tell me that it is still a dream for a one-child family that that boy or girl will have a prestigious job, have a degree and generally have a role in the emergent new economies of China. Have we heard such arguments in New Zealand? A failed attempt to get into a degree programme can be more attractive than a successful track through to technical qualifications and we do little to persuade the community otherwise.
But there could well be other drivers that distract education providers in the quest for the international student dollar. We perceive that there is more money to be made in degree education and on the face of it this might be right if unit price is taken into account but probably not if potential volume is considered. The need to feed the postgraduate money-go-round is an additional likely factor.
Finally, we probably are distracted into a belief that there is not the demand simply because our own domestic markets have been somewhat persuaded away from such training over the past three or four decades. The domestic “degrees-for-all” cry has impacted badly on international activity of postsecondary providers.
So we could consider in my view the possibility of mounting an international campaign for trades training and getting a series of “trades talk” under way. Taking substantial numbers of international students into trade’s programmes in New Zealand would be excellent in increasing the volume of students in such activity and this could be of benefit to domestic students through increasing the availability and provision of trades programmes. The increased volume of training would benefit both the international students and New Zealand.
Where does China get its trades people from then? Well, and this repeats the pattern of successful education systems in other parts of the world but less so the English-speaking systems, at about the age of 15 years, students have choices of differentiated secondary schooling. Some go down academic tracks, some go into trades programmes.
Understanding how to articulate with this approach is the next challenge to face the western international education market.