This contribution to the blog starts out in Beijing, where I have travelled from London in order to take forward the partnerships that the Open University UK is developing here. Met by the Project Manager for the OU from the China Britain Business Council Mrs Songyan Hou, I spend the first afternoon with her in a tea house discussing some of the opportunities and barriers that face us here. There is an enormous need for capacity building in Higher Education in China that a strategy of creating campuses will never satisfy. The Government of China is however very careful about how external educational bodies may work here, and partnership is a must. This is not a country where the notions of GATS about a liberal market in education is likely to find much sympathy. We also talk about the cultural barriers that make discussion complex, where neither side wishes to cause offence but saying no may cause one or other party to lose face. Reflecting on all this on my fifth visit to China in the last 10 years, I look out over the very changed Beijing night scene from my hotel window.
The next day, Sunday, I am able to do some leisure things and visit the new Olympic stadia, which look wonderful from the outside, especially the so-called bird’s nest stadium, but we are not able to go near as they are not yet finished. The TV records that there are 96 days to go to the Olympics so this is going to be a tight finish. I reflect to myself that after the Terminal 5 fiasco at Heathrow it is not for the British to say anything about big project management! In the afternoon I visit the Lama Temple, which is a beautiful ancient set of buildings with shrines to a range of different Buddhas, and see a number of Chinese clearly following Buddhist practises at the different shrines.
The next day I visit the Research Centre of Distance Education at Beijing Normal University, a large university that has been foremost in teacher education. They run a Masters Degree in Distance and E-Learning and have a special interest in teacher education in the rural areas, an issue of concern almost wherever you go and whoever you talk to. In the afternoon I visit the Central China Radio and TV University, old friends of EDEN who brought a delegation to the 2006 annual conference led by CCRTVU President Ge. EDEN Vice President Ulrich Bernath visited CCRTVU in late 2007, and CCRTVU plan to send a further delegation to the 2008 EDEN conference in Lisbon. I give a lecture on Learner Support to an enthusiastic group of colleagues there.
On Wednesday I visit the Beijing Medical Distance School, led by Madam Gao as Dean, which offers professional education at a distance. They are using an Open University course in the field of mental health, and are finding it very helpful. It is fascinating that in a field where there are considerable cultural as well as institutional differences Chinese colleagues find European work relevant. Later that day this is again the case with the British NGO Care for Children who work with the Chinese Government on moving orphaned children form institutions to live in families. This work has been going on for 10 years and some 2000 children now live much more happily with long-term foster parents. This works particularly well because of the restriction on having one child only in China, leaving a hunger for more children in many families. I find Chinese colleagues very open to discussing all issues, and on the One Child policy a number of them told me that while they acknowledge the serious issue of containing the Chinese population the One Child policy has unhappy consequences for the one child in the family without brothers or sisters.
My final stage of the journey takes me to Shanghai to East China Normal University, who want to develop a partnership with the OU. The famous waterfront in Shanghai, the Bund, looks wonderful against the spectacular skyline on the other side of the river.
I fit in a visit to the Shanghai Museum, a really world class museum with wonderful collections of ancient decorated brass vessels and the most beautiful ceramics. My favourites here are the Ming and the Xing dynasty ceramics, which I have never seen before. As for the decorated bronze pots and bowls and jugs, the mastery of technology and of aesthetics up to 7000 years ago is astonishing, and this at a time long before we in Europe were capable of such things. The length of time that Chinese culture has existed is truly astonishing and something also that the Chinese are very proud of.
Overall it is clear that distance and e-learning is flourishing in China, and that there is a hunger to manage scale with quality, supported by technology, that is both interesting and clearly familiar to Europeans. Quite how China works with a one party state and a hugely energetic market economy I am not sure, but it does! And the fact that it continues to do so in ways that satisfy its people and that are consonant with the world at large is enormously important to us all.
After an exhausting week I return home fascinated by this country of more than 1.3 billion people. It is clear to me that building partnerships is necessary for us in Europe so that we can understand this new world power and necessary to the Chinese so that they can develop first rate education systems of a scale that we can only dream of. It is also clear that this is long term business where relationships have to be built up over time. I am sure this is not my last visit!