Skills Training – Lessons from China

Selina Mohsin
Thursday, December 28th, 2017


Although Bangladesh has made huge progress since its wrecked state at independence, including rising economic growth of over 6% and an expanding middle class, it still faces a wide range of enormous challenges – among them the pressing need to improve general education and vocational training (VET). China already offers much for Bangladesh’s development, particularly technical and financial aid for its infrastructure. Yet do we realise how much we can also benefit from studying China’s skills development, a key part of its phenomenal transformation in recent decades?


Like Bangladesh, China, under the leadership of the CCP, started its virtual rebirth from the trauma and devastation of war. Despite the disparities of size and population, many of the challenges both have faced have much in common, as have the lessons that Bangladesh should learn from China’s success.


Currently the work force in Bangladesh is 60 million and two million enter the labour market annually. Unfortunately, poor quality basic education and archaic VET training leading to mismatch between supply and demand have resulted in most young people working in the informal sector of the economy. It is vulnerable and low paid and workers barely subsist.  The opportunities for skills training is limited and mainly linked to Bangladesh Technical Education Board while other training is provided by NGOs and the private sector.


The need to emulate skills training lessons from China is extremely urgent for Bangladesh. Despite progress already achieved we start from a low base. Nearly 20% of our available work force has had no education and, while over 60% have had some secondary education and over 13% some at tertiary level, the general quality is low and often badly suited to evolving employment demand. By contrast, in China 94.3% have secondary education and 43.4% tertiary. Good education is a necessary foundation for successful skills training.


China tackled this much earlier. The Vocational Education Law providing the basic framework was passed in 1996. Bangladesh’s Comprehensive National Skills Development Policy dates from only 2011. Its implementation has so far been patchy and inadequate. The Chinese system is complex, advanced and inclusive. It is recognised as a national priority. The government supported further expansion in 2005 and after the 2008 global financial crisis 6.45 million workers were re-trained for employment as the economy re-grew and evolved.


Features which Bangladesh should study include country wide certification networks and the requirement that training instructors must spend a month each year working in industry to keep up with new technology and industry’s employment needs.  Finance for VET is primarily the responsibility of local governments and provincial administrations. They pay the average expenses of students, companies pay for VET given to their employees and recruits and students pay tuition fees for their main subject. Donations come from public organisations and individuals. Employment agencies and labour unions are important stakeholders.


Bangladesh needs to create an equally inclusive and efficient system, fitted to its own resources and needs. The first requirement must be a major rise in all education spending. Currently, at 2.1% of GDP it is low even by South Asian standards. Sharing the cost across government, business and civil society will help. As skill levels improve so will revenues, both from remittances and from the released expansion and diversification of Bangladesh’s industry and agriculture. At present the RMG and other sectors of industry are forced, amidst the waste of general under-employment and low productivity, to employ high levels of expatriate expertise.


The government of Bangladesh has established the National Skill Development Council (NSDC). It is preparing a road map for skills training and skills providers in at least 20 sectors along with TVET Data system to introduce pilot model institutions in 7 divisional cities. The initiative is good but slow.  The main challenges will be quality skills, good education and training related to employment and emerging market demands.


But China is way ahead. It is now making huge investments in VET. Many of these projects have partnership with institutions in other countries. For instance, Shanghai Institute of Health Science is a model for China in the health sector with innovative approaches and development.


The Tianjin Vocational and Technical College is part of a Tianjin Educational Park that includes several other universities and technical colleges. The programs of the colleges have grown as the local economy has altered.  Founded in the 1980s, it was a joint venture between the German and Chinese governments where the Germans provided funds and technical assistance. This was to assist in developing German style Vocational Education and Training in several cities in China.


Even a brief outline of VET issues must include the challenges and opportunity of democratic change. China, Japan, Russia, the USA and the EU are among the major economies with now ageing populations. China has absorbed its surplus rural labour and, like others, will increasingly turn to older workers and support a rising proportion of elderly people unable to continue work. Bangladesh, however, has a young population with a falling ratio of child dependency and low old age ratio until the mid-century. This can be made a massive competitive advantage, if given effective education and VET expansion. Without them, even with economic growth it could easily become a major problem of radicalisation and political strife, born of rising aspirations combined with frustration at the continued failure to find worthwhile jobs, with Madrasa pupils at particular risk.


The mid/long term aim in China is to create and stabilise new sectors, new jobs and to understand future skill needs. In China skills development is seen as essential for productive growth.


There is quite a lot of variation in the design of vocational education and training systems worldwide. Some such as Singapore and China are education based, while others, like in Switzerland are employer based. But in both systems there are certain keys to excellent VET systems. To upgrade VET systems we must:


  1. I) Design flexible programs and curricula to provide students with a broad quality education that would help them acquire new skills as their career progresses;


  1. II) Provide scope to learn both cognitive and non-cognitive skills in actual industrial settings and on modern equipment;


III) Create opportunities to move from vocational education to an academic university track and vice versa;


  1. IV) Provide instructors who have the latest industry experience;
  2. V) Workers to inculcate the ability for comprehensive lifelong learning;


  1. VI) Develop standards and qualifications that are continually adjusted to the cutting edge industries, including the changing global nature of occupations;


VII) Design a brand that can make VET an alternative option and a governance system that is market based.


China is aware of the changing global scenario and is adopting the above strategies to make VET world class and pilot projects are being created to suit different regions of the country by developing highly skilled workers in major industries of China.


The demographic advantage in Bangladesh cannot be relied upon to last until 2050. China, like Japan and others are increasingly turning to advanced technologies and robots which need fewer workers and will replace whole categories of manual, clerical and industrial workers, although new forms of service and other employment may at least partially make up for such losses. This phenomenon is already starting to surface in Bangladesh itself whenever new technology can out- compete low wages.


This demographic advantage is therefore an opportunity to be seized rapidly, before it adds yet another challenge to those the country already faces. It requires a major national effort which will be politically difficult. Yet, if explained to the people of Bangladesh and convincing to international partners and global investors it is achievable and would bring new sustainable impetus for Bangladesh to accelerate its rise as a middle income country.


There is no acceptable alternative.


Prof. Selina Mohsin, Former Ambassador

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