British Education in China’s Age of “Entrepreneurship Plus”

There is no hotter topic at the moment than innovation and entrepreneurship. On 4 June, the State Council set out the blueprint from the top in its “Opinions on Several Policy Measures to Boost Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation”. At a recent government meeting, Premier Li Keqiang came back to this theme over and again: “Accelerate the building of the new mass entrepreneurship and innovation engine… We must strongly promote mass entrepreneurship and innovation, using the wings of innovation to fly Chinese enterprises to new heights… Abolish procedures for awarding and authorising professional qualifications and unleash the power of mass entrepreneurship and innovation through reform.”

Everyone has shifted their sights to this topic, from government departments - such as the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Development and Reform Commission - to local officials, educators, economists and entrepreneurs. China is entering the age of “entrepreneurship plus”.

In fact in recent years the Chinese government has delivered a succession of "gift packages" in its policies on innovation and entrepreneurship. One such was the abolition of 211 types of vocational qualification so as to remove barriers to work and increase employment.

So what is the government hoping to achieve by such measures? First, it can drive and increase employment through the promotion of entrepreneurship. Although the Vice-Minister for Human Resources and Social Security, Xin Changxing, told a forum on employment earlier this year that urban unemployment was still relatively low, in fact with the economy’s shift to the new normal and efforts to meet the government’s goal of limiting registered urban unemployment to “within 4.5 per cent”, pressure remains in terms of overall employment.

Second, using the initiative to create an entrepreneurial landscape shaped by market demand can spark a flow of private capital into new technology, new products, new strategies and new business models, thus accelerating the structural transformation and upgrading of China’s economy.

Third, using innovation as a new driver of development will translate innovative ideas into industrial activity, with innovation in supply creating growth in demand, so that the economy will be able to maintain medium- to high-speed growth.

Against this backdrop, entrepreneurs are flourishing and there is a constant stream of innovative new business models; entrepreneurship can be found across traditional and modern sectors of the economy. According to the head of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, Zhang Mao, over 10,000 new businesses are now registered every day, compared with an average of 7,000 before the reforms – so there has been a large increase.

This age of innovation and entrepreneurship promises boundless opportunities and market openings for the UK. Reducing costs and increasing funding channels for entrepreneurs, for example, as well as creating favourable conditions for innovation and entrepreneurship - making it easier and more efficient - could open the way for more technology-based platforms, which would boost the provision of public services and the demand for shared online resources. The finance industry would also receive a boost: entrepreneurs would need access to various types of capital market, which in turn would need tighter rules. Certainly the UK has a wealth of technology and experience in fields such as ICT and finance which it can share with China.

But nowhere is China’s present wave of entrepreneurship more directly and more effectively complemented than in the UK’s system of “entrepreneurship education” and its established experience in this field. It is widely acknowledged that Britain’s success here puts it among the best in the world, so China - a late starter - could learn a good deal from the UK in a number of areas. At the same time, the two countries show many similarities when it comes to fostering entrepreneurship among university students, which sets the ground for them to share their experience. For example, both countries’ education policies on entrepreneurship are designed to solve the question of graduate employment – and both governments are strongly involved in promoting entrepreneurship education.

Specifically, the UK can export the following experience and skills to China while simultaneously finding opportunities in the Chinese market:

  1. The UK government has experience of setting up specialist organisations, such as Science and Enterprise Centres and the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, for which China currently has no equivalent.
  2. Entrepreneurship education has already nurtured a favourable ecosystem in the UK. There are areas where China needs to gain experience, from how to establish a cross-society support network (including government organisations, NGOs, commercial organisations, companies and educational institutions) to how to set up commercial funds and collate the resources of social enterprises, for example through university-industry-government (UIG) initiatives.
  3. The UK already has formative, general and specialist education in entrepreneurship. In recent years it has also been gradually shifting towards a practical project-based system ncompassing undergraduates, postgraduates and doctoral students. And not only are entrepreneurship courses on offer in UK universities, but in 2007 a pioneering policy was announced for the establishment of entrepreneurship universities across the country. Be it the education system, curriculum, course materials or teachers, Britain’s resources would be welcomed by their Chinese counterparts.
  4. The UK has done well in developing linked courses. Generally, entrepreneurship courses are not developed by single universities, but as part of a network of several working in cooperation, who improve entrepreneurial education in unison. This kind of “internet plus what?” model can make courses more diverse and it is something China could learn from.
  5. In 2001, the Business School of the University of Sunderland established Britain’s first university-based entrepreneurship incubator. Its model has since been emulated by numerous others, with a variety of universities founding entrepreneurship centres, enterprise centres and innovation centres, providing students with facilities and funding to help them link up with businesses and receive technological support to realise their successful “incubation”. Many Chinese universities have established their own incubators, but many of them only recently, and there is a multitude of areas in which they could benefit from the experience of developed countries. There is no doubt that the UK has established strength in this field to share with Chinese institutions.

In summary, entrepreneurship education, which has been called the “third passport to learning” after academic education and professional training, is now taking off in China. We expect to see more British organisations working with Chinese counterparts in the near future to establish joint academies for innovation and entrepreneurship or to realise success through similar means.

The China-Britain Business Council is currently working on a project as part of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Prosperity Fund, which is titled “Accelerating Innovation: Bridging the Gap between UK and China Businesses, and Fostering Collaboration between Incubators and Research and Innovation Centres from UK and Chinese Universities”. We welcome your comments and involvement.

If you would like to know more, please contact the author, Jane Zhang, Assistant Director of Research in Beijing (jane.zhang@cbbc.org.cn) or Nathalie Cachet-Gaujard, China Business Advisor in the UK (nathalie.cachet-gaujard@cbbc.org).

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