The role of education in promoting ties in BRI countries
No one can deny that more than any other diplomatic tool, education plays a vital role in promoting people-to-people bonds that break down national, ethnic, racial, cultural, religious and regional barriers. Policy coordination, connectivity of facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration and people-to-people ties are seen as the cornerstone of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Of these, people-to-people bond is the most easily neglected, and at the same the hardest to achieve.
Reviewing the past
China has been committed to promoting all-round, multi-level and wide-ranging development of the internationalization of education, and the past 7 years have seen China’s education become more open to the world. The year 2016 was an eventful one both for China and countries and regions along the BRI routes, as the Belt and Road Education Action Plan was published by the Chinese Ministry of Education (MOE), showing China’s determination to work with countries and regions along the routes, expand people-to-people bonds, strengthen cooperation in talent cultivation and together create a bright future for education.
As outlined by a senior official from the MOE, during the 13th Five-Year-Plan period (2016-20), China signed 19 cooperation agreements on education with 14 international organizations such as UNESCO, concluded agreements on mutual recognition of qualifications and academic degrees with higher education institutions in 25 BRI countries, and established 2,331 Chinese-foreign joint education institutions and programs. In 2019, 54.1 percent of international students studying in China came from countries and regions along the BRI routes.
In order to actively respond to the Asia-Pacific Regional Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education of UNESCO, China supports the establishment of a worldwide mutual recognition mechanism for academic degrees, and is realizing the mutual recognition of bilateral and multilateral academic degrees in the region.
So far, China has established educational cooperation and exchange relations with 188 countries and regions and 46 important international organizations, and has also signed agreements on mutual recognition of academic degrees in higher education with 54 countries.
China-ASEAN Education Cooperation Week (CAECW), which is seen as a significant platform for cultural exchanges and connecting people in BRI countries, has permanently settled in Southwest China’s Guizhou Province. CAECW promotes high-quality education resources cooperation and consolidates the cooperation model of “1 (China) + 10 (ASEAN countries) + N (specially invited partner countries)”, in the form of student mobility plans, vocational education cooperation mechanism projects, youth exchange platforms, art exchange exhibition centers and international organization exchanges and cooperation.
China Scholarship Council (CSC) has formulated the “2021 Talent Support Plan for Non-universal Language”, which will select students who speak non-universal languages to study abroad or jointly train, in order to speed up the cultivation of a group of applied and compound non-universal language talents with international vision who are familiar with international rules and are able to participate in international affairs.
According to statistics from the MOE, there were about 490,000 foreign students from 196 countries and regions coming to China in 2018. In terms of the scale of international students, China has nearly half the number of the US (1.075 million), making it the country with the most overseas students in the world in 2020.
The MOE has also issued the Guidance for Higher Education to Run Schools Abroad in 2019. Education of all levels and forms has been steadily promoted, and to date, 2,282 Chinese-foreign schools and projects are operating. Ningbo Polytechnic, a Chinese-foreign cooperative project, features core industries such as automobile, aviation and manufacturing, and has trained 1,618 industrial and educational officials and teachers for countries and regions along the routes including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya and Egypt. It also established a Chinese-African vocational and technical education and training college in Benin in 2016.
In September 2020, Chinese School Dubai officially opened as the first batch of pilot schools. The successful completion of the Luban Workshop gradually established the brand of Chinese vocational education along the BRI routes, boldly advancing vocational education to promote people-to-people connectivity.
The Luban Workshop adopts three construction modes, namely inter-school cooperation, school-enterprise cooperation and government cooperation, effectively promoting the integration and sharing of China's vocational education concepts and experience, teaching methods, technical equipment, international professional standards and high-level teacher training. The Luban Workshop in the Ayutthaya Technical Institute, Thailand, in Chichester College, UK and in the Technical Education & Vocational Training Authority of Punjab, Pakistan, all have their own characteristics.
Prospects for education serving BRI
The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the world. Youth unemployment, school dropouts, skill mismatches and other education-related social problems could intensify in the coming years. Chronic social contradictions may become globalized in a short time. Multilateralism, openness, and non-exclusivity are the golden keys to the profound changes the world is going through.
We firmly believe that the strategy of China’s educational opening-up will be unswerving, Sino-foreign cooperation in running schools will expand to more countries, the Belt and Road Education Action Plan will be upgraded and education as a global public good will be provided to more outstanding young people.
Meanwhile, education is the main and most basic means of increasing human capital, and China is committed to providing whatever aid it can to other developing countries through education.
To further promote people-to-people ties, education needs to expand the range of target groups. One of the principles behind the promotion of people-to-people ties is linking together through friend-sourcing. Overseas Chinese are the best intermediaries for promoting projects when advancing the BRI as they are bilingual and straddle two cultures. In light of the actual conditions of the host countries, we will use various methods to solve the problem of education for staff members of various overseas and Chinese-funded institutions, as well as for the children of those who go abroad for business or work.
We will actively promote international cooperation in Chinese language education, meet the needs of people around the world who want to learn the Chinese language, understand China’s history, culture and development status, and support overseas Chinese in developing Chinese language education. In addition, we should get deeply involved in the education activities of G20, BRICS, APEC and other multilateral mechanisms, and shoulder more international responsibilities.
Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) should collaborate with industry in cultivating talents. Education activities should become adept at utilizing local enterprises and other social forces, which will make it easier to obtain resources and gain public trust. TVET has the closest ties to industry and economic activities. It also carries great expectations for cultivating all kinds of BRI builders that are badly needed by the locals. Different types of enterprises show different operation modes in “going global”, such as large State-owned enterprises (SOEs), private enterprises, and small and medium-sized enterprises.
Quality vocational education requires a keen observation of market dynamics and a quick response to their talents’ needs. Based on the experience we have obtained so far, we strongly advise vocational education providers to go global with large SOEs, and promote the development mode of vocational education that is compatible with the “going global” of Chinese enterprises and products.
In addition to students, resources and investment, we also share standards, best practices and teachers with the world. “Metaphysical is Tao and instrumental is a tool”. Education for promoting cultural exchanges goes through different stages, usually from tools to ideas. Right now, we unconsciously focus on the quantity rather than the quality of students, investment and other types of resources. However, if we look closely at the textbooks in different countries, we can see that a great deal of biased and prejudiced description of China still exists. Thus, in the future, we also need to share our textbooks, teaching plans, specialized standards and our best practices in learning and instruction.
Based on China’s approaches, education “going global” also needs to be combined with local conditions, and efforts should be made to obtain connectivity with local qualification certificates, skill assessment standards, curriculum standards, training and experiment standards.
Amity between peoples is the key to sound state-to-state relations, and friendship between peoples lies in mutual understanding. As a carrier of people-to-people exchanges among countries, education will write a new chapter in the story of the BRI.
This study was supported by the 2020 MOE Key Project HEI Running Schools Overseas under the Belt and Road Initiative (19GBQY006)
About the authors
Ni Hao: associate professor, China Academy of West Region Development, and Research Center for Regional Coordinated Development, Zhejiang University
Jiang Zengyu: research assistant with the College of Education, Zhejiang University
Zhou Guping : dean of China Academy of West Region Development, Zhejiang University