Meeting the higher education needs of mainland China

Dave Towey
The University of Nottingham
Ningbo, China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has seen incredible economic growth over the past 30 years, fuelled, arguably, by a manufacturing industry boom that observers now suggest may be grinding to a halt. Commentators have argued that the best hope for China’s continued economic success may lie in a move away from manufacturing to a service economy. A problem identified with this, however, is a current, and foreseen, shortfall in an appropriately skilled workforce, especially in terms of a tertiary-level educated population — some estimates suggest that, by 2020, the PRC will face a labour shortfall of about 24 million university and vocationally trained workers. In response to this challenge, the PRC authorities have, over the past ten to 15 years, been reforming the higher education (HE) landscape. These reforms have included enhancements to the quality and quantity of domestically-provided HE, but another option the PRC has also been experimenting with relates to looking overseas for assistance, with a large number of joint-venture and foreign-run programmes now established and running. These reforms and initiatives, it is argued, will still fall short of the target numbers, prompting the question: How can the PRC meet the foreseen shortages?

This paper looks at some of the as yet relatively unexplored potential in open and flexible learning modes, particularly the possible use of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to bridge the foreseen skills gap. In addition to examining some of the known challenges facing MOOCs, including quality issues and expected computer literacy levels, the paper discusses some of the unique characteristics of learners in the PRC, and how these traits may well help to facilitate MOOC adoption.