Are universities helping China compete on skills?

Talent shortages are intensifying at a global level. Some 40% of employers globally report difficulties filling jobs due to a lack of available talent, according to the 2017 ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage Survey. This has a negative impact on economic output and performance, which is vital in today’s highly competitive international environment.

There is a wealth of evidence that points to the role of skills development in productivity and capacity building. The correlation between talent and competitiveness has been addressed in prominent global competitiveness indices such as the Global Talent Competitiveness Index.

China is not an exception when it comes to the skills shortage trend: the rapid expansion of a more open and competitive Chinese economy calls for skilling and up-skilling the workforce to reap the benefits of globalisation.

The Chinese perspective

Developing global talent and a skilled workforce that can meet the requirements of the labour market are high on the agenda for China. As China evolves from an investment-led economy to a consumption-oriented one, from being the workshop of the world to being a services powerhouse, the country will need a skilled workforce.

Despite the steady increase in the number of tertiary enrolments in China over the past decade, demand for skilled labour is likely to outstrip supply by 24 million people in 2020. McKinsey also estimates that if China does not bridge this skills gap, it could lose opportunities worth more than US$250 billion, which represents about 2.3% of the country’s current gross domestic product.

This challenge is also a theme in the New Skills at Work report by JPMorgan Chase, which argues that China faces an acute skills shortfall and suggests that “the supply-demand gap for highly-skilled labour is widening”.

Equally, data from the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security shows that skilled workers account for only about 19% of the entire workforce, with highly skilled workers constituting only 5%.

Universities’ role in skills development

The Chinese government has outlined ambitious plans to improve skills development opportunities and universities are thought to play a key role in this process. President Xi Jinping stressed the role of higher education in fostering talent in a 2016 letter to Tsinghua University.

China already has seven universities featured in the latest Times Higher Education Global University Employability Ranking, including reputable institutions such as Peking, Fudan and Tsinghua universities. This indicates the progress of Chinese higher education in addressing the importance of employability, yet employer voices suggest that there is more to be done.

This commitment is also reflected in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan which highlights the importance of higher education in skills development, such as through university-industry cooperation, as well as innovation in teaching and learning and a focus on vocational education.

Opportunities for the future

The Chinese government has long been promoting the value of teaching entrepreneurship and innovation, but has the curriculum been outward-looking enough to take into account recent global developments?

Developing entrepreneurship and innovation capabilities in students and graduates is vital, but this needs to take account of developments in the global economy and society through investing in developing global-minded and socially-responsible entrepreneurs.

Partnerships with universities and other types of organisations to promote good practice and skills development is yet another avenue to be explored. This could take the form of systematic and synergetic approaches to employer engagement, curriculum innovation and co-creation through international partnerships.

Chinese higher education institutions perform well in international research collaborations, but more could be done to promote collaboration in the context of employability and skills development.

If talent in China is seen as conferring a competitive advantage and being a key driver for improving workforce productivity and capacity building, collaborative platforms and fora should be set up to provide information on the latest developments in talent and skills development from multiple stakeholder perspectives. This will have the potential to shape the future workforce of the country.

Dr Sonal Minocha is a pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at Bournemouth University, United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @PVCBU. Dr Dean Hristov is a global talent research analyst at the Global Engagement Hub, Bournemouth University, UK. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanHristov.