education system in China deserves our attention in the West

Why It is WISE to Take Note of Education in China

By Angelica Towne

Beijing–Last weekend I had the pleasure of speaking at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) regional gathering in Beijing, China, entitled ‘Innovating for Equity and Empowerment’.

The WISE-LIFE China Forum, developed with partners at the 21st Century Education Research Institute, is one of several engagements that will take place between the biennial global WISE summits. As WISE CEO Stavros Yiannouka put it, the summit was “an important opportunity to explore and share ideas from a global perspective around issues of local interest and relevance.

Mr. Yiannouka added: “We believe that equitable and inclusive education provides a new, dynamic vision for education systems in all contexts globally. Yet quality education is often not provided equally, depriving learners of opportunity and advancement. This challenge is present across the world and is perhaps increasingly relevant in countries such as China, which face rapid transformation.”

Each year, millions of educated young people enter the job market in Africa with the hope of making a living. Unfortunately, most can expect to remain unemployed or underemployed because they lack the skills needed to succeed in an economy with few formal sector jobs. In school, these students are not learning the skills they need to become employable – all at a considerable expense to families.

My own organisation, Educate!, aims to close this gap by delivering a skills-based model of education through existing educational institutions. Our model uses an experiential, skills-based curriculum; student business clubs; mentorship; and teacher training to prepare students to graduate with 21st century skills they need to be employed. With these skills, scholars can go on to solve poverty for themselves and their communities.

In Uganda, for example, 40,000 young people graduate from universities each year, yet the market provides only 8,000 jobs annually. A root of the problem can be found in the education system, which critics say does not endow Ugandan students with the right skills.

In China, youth face similar challenges. Each month, millions of university students graduate and begin the search for a job. However, many are still unemployed six months after graduating – qualified workers unable to find work that suits their level of education. China’s economy is still based on construction and manufacturing, leaving little room for lawyers and engineers graduating each month. Similar to Uganda, the education system is not preparing Chinese students for the conditions they find upon entering the job market.

While China and Uganda may seem distant, youth unemployment remains a global phenomenon – and there are lessons to be learned from organizations around the world. For example, in much of 2013, Educate! traveled to India to visit peer organizations and study best practices for scaling up. The lessons we learned were incorporated into our own model, which continue to serve us well to this day.

At the Beijing event, Yang Dongping, President of 21st Century Education Research Institute, said in his introduction: “The purpose of education innovation is not just to be new or unconventional, but to reform education and reshape the future. Education innovation means searching for more effective ways to improve access, help marginalized groups, and bridge the educational gaps across classes, genders, and geographic articulations. It means improving education quality and fighting exam-oriented education to bring up capable, creative citizens of tomorrow.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And, following on from Beijing, I would add that there are some further lessons Educate! has learned in trying to create skills for leadership, workforce readiness, and entrepreneurship.

Firstly, start in school. Skills training is as important during school as it is post graduation. By starting skill-delivery while students are still in school, we leverage the education system to provide training and guidance to students through existing infrastructure – and before they graduate, they will be relying on these skills each and every day.

School is not just a time for learning in the abstract, but should also be a place that students can depend on receiving what they need to accomplish their goals. That means preparing students to be competitive workers, innovative entrepreneurs, active community members as well as great thinkers.

So, the school curriculum should develop skills needed beyond school. In China, for example, there are many active programs targeted at helping unemployed youth. The Youth Employment Inventory China lists 70 such programs including skills training, entrepreneurship, and employment services. However, the opportunity remains for Chinese universities – as around the world – to better prepare graduates with skills in critical thinking, foreign language, and office communication skills that employers seek.

Another lesson is developing partnership with governments.

Young people the world over desire a chance to work for what they want. Yet education systems – in China, Africa and elsewhere – routinely miss opportunities to prepare students for the jobs in their respective job markets.

At Educate!, we are learning new lessons all the time. We have found that girls can benefit most from our programs, which attests to the importance of measuring results based on data.

Our organisation will continue to share with public what it has learned about skills delivery, and will continue to look towards the work and success of others tackling this challenge. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. To prepare them, we need programs as inventive and dynamic as the students they serve.


Angelica Towne is Co-Founder and Global Director of Educate!

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