Learning skills for a connected world

By LUCIE MORANGI | | Updated: 2017-05-20 01:30

Learning skills for a connected world

Zhang Huibo, principal of Ningbo Polytechnic, is excited at the prospect of greater collaboration among technical institutions. LUCIE MORANGI / CHINA DAILY

A new international alliance of technical and vocational institutions is in the pipeline to back the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Belt and Road International Vocational Education Collaboration Alliance is a platform for technical and vocational education and training institutions to deepen cooperation toward harmonization and internationalization of the tertiary training sector.

This means developing skills and knowledge to engage and perform in a globalized and intercultural landscape.

Zhang Huibo, principal of Ningbo Polytechnic, is excited at the prospect of greater collaboration among technical institutions.

He says the alliance, which will be officially launched in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, on June 10, will internationalize practical education and meet the growing demand for relevance in the knowledge economy, fueled by cross-border mobility of students. It will hasten integration as the Belt and Road Initiative takes shape.

"Many students, especially from developing countries, will benefit from this alliance. It will provide skills, knowledge and ethics that will increase work opportunities and promote sustainable livelihoods," says Zhang, who has worked at Ningbo polytechnic for 10 years now.

He is speaking in Nairobi, Kenya, after attending the fourth Partnership and Innovation for Skills Development in Africa, a World Bank initiative that wants African higher institutions to develop a regional benchmarking initiative to strengthen collaboration.

In the past, China has pursued collaborations with institutions in the United States and Europe to upgrade its own education to a world-class level and attract more foreign students. According to global data, there are more than 5 million international students moving to seek tertiary education. Chinese institutions can now boast of having the capacity to engage globally, owing to the country’s success in industrial transformation.

The World Bank also recognizes the country’s ability to develop benchmarking systems that can be used globally in upgrading the quality and relevance of its programs to the market.

Learning skills for a connected world

Technical, vocational institutions will provide the knowledge required by the Belt and Road nations

Zhang attributes China’s industrial revolution to the vocational education alliance’s symbiotic relationship with local enterprises.

"We are located in the Beilun district, the most open district in Ningbo and Zhejiang province. The employment rate has been maintained at 99 percent for several years in the four parks and five bases there," he says.

He is passionate about the establishment of the alliance, which is the brainchild of his institution together with the China Education Association for International Exchange and the Ningbo education bureau. He believes it offers an ideal platform to increase the effectiveness of the alliance in more than 65 countries while increasing students’ awareness and engagement with global issues. It also enhances the quality of teaching and the learning of applied sciences, engineering and technology.

"There is always something new to learn that will add to our pool of knowledge. And there is always something to contribute to other institutions. The ultimate goal is to build a bridge between research, policy and practice," says the principal.

Zhang, who is also the executive vice-chairman of the National Joint Conference for Vocational and Technical College Presidents in China, says the alliance will investigate and develop solutions for how countries can adapt to international influence in meeting their own specific needs and national interests.

"The tangible impact of the Belt and Road Initiative will be realized when people find commonalities and implement practical solutions in their environments. It will definitely solidify people-to-people exchanges," he says.

"When there is a loop of institutions working together, it will fuel research, innovation and experiences that will help develop policies to shape the vocational education sector in countries involved," Zhang says, adding that this would be the basis of the partnership.

Challenges exist, however, in the ability of African institutions to strongly contribute to this alliance. Over the years, the vocational education sector has not only suffered public underfunding, which has had a negative impact on its research and innovation departments, but there is notably poor linkage between academia and the corporate sector.

This has resulted in sluggish growth of the manufacturing sector, raising an outcry from employers that graduates are unemployable due to poor practical skills. In addition, most of the students who benefit from scholarship programs abroad fail to secure jobs back home because they are considered overqualified.

While acknowledging these challenges, Zhang says Ningbo Polytechnic and other technical institutions in the country are prepared.

"In essence, Ningbo Polytechnic will provide technical skills to African institutions to assist in mapping out policies and practices and develop benchmarking systems that will enable these institutions to compare themselves with their regional and global peers. It will help them raise the bar in their standards of training and learning."

He says training and job-market mismatches will be eliminated by first analyzing the country’s needs and modifying a curriculum, making it simple and functional.

"To strengthen Africa’s human capital and support the continent’s effective integration into the Belt and Road Initiative, the technical and vocational institutions need to produce the right skills mix for young people. For this to happen, standards and structures need to be built in partnership with the government and private sector," Zhang adds.

A yawning gap between the government, learning institutions and entrepreneurs hampers the direction and development of the labor market.

"The vocational education alliances need the capacity to assist local governments in developing policies relevant to prevailing development challenges. They must then analyze the job market and come up with a clear strategy and cultivate learning according to market dynamics."

He says globalization and changing regional markets are prompting tertiary institutions to be more proactive.

"Polytechnics not only deal with practical aspects but also the theoretical. We are architects who modify processes in management to boost the productivity process. Complex challenges need institutions that adapt and are nimble enough to adjust accordingly, nurturing workers who are practical and relevant."

Zhang says there are more than 3,000 technical and vocational education centers in China, and all of them work toward supporting industry.

"We design programs and curriculums to tightly fit with market demands. Our institutions have built mechanisms that steadily adjust and closely monitor improvements and transformations in technological application. We constantly optimize specialty setups and adjust the development direction of programs, scientifically building the program group system."

Pragmatic approaches have seen teachers become long-term part-time engineers in enterprises and research teams dedicated to developing products and processes to optimize manufacturing techniques.

"Our collaboration has subsequently led to students gaining direct employment in these industries. Conversely, enterprises are financing research and innovation programs in colleges," says Zhang, who is an engineer by profession.

Under the education alliance, Zhang hopes more African institutions will join and contribute in broadening the technical areas of partnership.

"I believe the collaboration will drive economies into the middle level that their governments are aiming for."

To position itself strategically, Ningbo Polytechnic has launched departments dedicated to foreign students. Instructors are encouraged to adopt English as the language for instruction to improve the learning experience.

Scholarship programs will certainly increase to meet demand and encourage student exchanges.

"The success of this alliance will be founded on institutions that are open-minded. More funding will be committed toward innovation and entrepreneurship with the creation of incubation hubs to stimulate much needed developmental growth."

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