Why top students from African nations are flocking to Chinese vocational schools

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2016-2-25 19:43:01

It was on a sweltering August afternoon two years ago that Abdullah Azayem found himself waiting nervously in line along with hundreds of other top students from across Egypt for an opportunity that could change his life: a full scholarship to study at a vocational college in China.

This - the final interview - was the last stage of a rigorous selection process that had thinned the field to the best of the best, with requirements like top scores on the TOEFL, national college entrance examinations and an IQ test, a character evaluation to see if they could adjust to life overseas, and two interviews hosted by local government officials. Launched by the Egyptian government in 2014, the program - which, in addition to tuition, covers all transportation and living expenses - has quickly established itself as one of the most competitive scholarships in the country.

"A lot of my classmates also applied," says Azayem, 20, who is now a sophomore at Beijing Information Technology College (BITC). "I think there must have been thousands of applicants since the program was promoted through newspapers and on national television, but only 40 students got the opportunity that year."

Chinese vocational colleges have seen a steady rise in foreign students from developing countries in Africa and Asia in recent years as fresh graduates wager their futures on China's prospering economy. BITC, for instance, has more than tripled its number of foreign students since it was first certified to admit them in 2012 from 20 to a new class of 60 each year, said Li Xingzhi, director of the international department at BITC.

Likewise, Jinhua Polytechnic in Zhejiang Province had only three foreign students when it opened up its admissions to foreign applicants in 2007 - today it admits 40 each year, according to Yang Yan, vice president of the college.

A majority of the students hail from countries in Africa, like Egypt and Rwanda, with whom China has been cultivating economic relationships as part of its push to increase investment in the region.

Between 2013 and 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Africa twice, traveling to Tanzania, The Republic of the Congo and South Africa, according to a People's Daily report in December of last year. The increased attention has led to substantive gains: Over the past few years, China has succeeded in helping more than 50 African nations improve their infrastructure, created more than 600,000 jobs, provided loans of more than 20 billion dollars to African nations and seen its trade with the continent reach 222 billion dollars in 2014.

This provides an obvious incentive for students eager to take advantage of this burgeoning relationship. Attending a Chinese school not only offers the chance to study cutting-edge technologies, but to learn about China itself, and thereby give themselves a leg-up in what they hope will be a booming transnational industry.

An Egyptian teacher at Beijing Information Technology College helps students study Chinese to prepare them for their upcoming professional courses. Photo: Li Hao/GT


Practice over theory

As a high school student, Azayem never planned to get his education in China. Having ranked in the top five percent in Egypt's national college examination, he had already been accepted to the mechatronics major of Cairo University, one of the top schools in the country. Then his brother saw one of the scholarship ads in the paper.

"My brother is an engineer in Cairo, and as a professional, he knows that mechatronics technologies are more developed in China, and there are more Chinese companies in Egypt in recent years," Azayem said, "so if I studied in China, I would be more competitive."

Mechatronics - a multidisciplinary field that integrates mechanical engineering, computer science and electronics - is an emerging area of study that's proven useful for everything from manufacturing to transportation and defense. It's also been a big focus for Chinese industrial development, drawing foreign students who believe that the country can provide a more practical and cutting-edge education in the field.

Still, when Azayem first told his parents that he wanted to go to a vocational school in China, they were against the idea. As in many places around the world, they believed that science universities were superior to vocational colleges - not to mention more prestigious.

"But me and my brother believe that a profession like engineering should start from practice rather than theory," Azayem says. 

Azayem's expectations of getting hands-on experience have been borne out. Each semester includes 20 to 30 hours of practice classes in which students build their own machine tools, connect circuits and design web pages.

 "I've talked to my friends studying the same major in Egypt, and they either don't have practice classes at all, or have very little of it," he said.

According to Azayem, the superior quality of education in China is related to the fact that mechatronics is a much more established field there.

"Only two universities in Egypt have mechatronics majors, and they're very new - they've only been around for two or three years - while China's schools have decades of history," Azayem said. This means not only a better curriculum, but better facilities. 

Twizere Pacifique, a 20-year-old student from Rwanda who studies network communications at Jinhua Polytechnic, agrees on the value of hands-on education in China. "I have a lot of practice configuring, so I know I can go anywhere and build networks, while science universities only teach that through books."

Pacifique, who received a scholarship from the Rwandan government, is confident that his education will land him a good job after graduating.

According to Li, the most popular majors among foreign students at BITC are machinery engineering, electronics engineering and international trade, all of which are directly linked to manufacturing industries.

Egyptian students from the mechatronics major at Beijing Information Technology College studying at school    Photo: Li Hao/GT


More job opportunities

Yet it isn't just homegrown development that has prospective engineers excited; as China continues to increase its influence, investment and tourism around Africa, locals are seeing more opportunities to help build transnational bridges.

According to a Bohai Morning News report in January, since the China-Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone opened up in 2008, 68 companies have established themselves there, 90 percent of which are Chinese. These companies have attracted investment of over 1 billion dollars, and created more than 2,000 jobs for locals.

What's more, according to a Xinhua News Agency report in January, China State Construction Engineering Corporation just signed a 2.7-billion-dollar agreement with the Egyptian government to do construction projects in Egypt's new administrative capital, including a national conference center, parliament house, exhibition center and office buildings for 12 government departments. The projects are expected to create a lot of jobs.

Li said that BITC's management staff traveled to Egypt in April 2014 to meet with major Chinese companies with branches there, like Huawei, BMW Brilliance Automotive and Geely, and gauge interest in their graduates.

"Those companies were very enthusiastic about our students," Li said. "They are in desperate need of people who are familiar with their technology, and who understand the Chinese language and culture, which eases communication and improves working efficiency."

As China's investment in African countries continues to grow, locals with Chinese educations will be offered the chance not only to work at Chinese companies, but to start their own businesses based on international trade or to work in hospitality. According to a China News Service report this month, China's investment in Africa has surpassed 30 billion dollars, and the number of African students studying in China is also continuing to grow, seeing a 25 percent increase in 2014 compared with the same period in 2013.

Pacifique, for one, is confident in his prospects.

"There are a lot of Chinese companies in my country, so they will need people they can communicate with in their mother tongue," he said.

Pacifique added that he hopes to work for a Chinese phone company when gets back to Rwanda, or some other network company. Since many local companies are in need of Chinese employees, he expects his background to prove an advantage.

To the future

Of course, there's no single path for foreign graduates of Chinese vocational schools, but one thing many of them have in common is that they plan to return to their home countries.

"Rwanda is developing right now," Pacifique said, explaining his reasons for returning when he graduates in two years. "My country needs my service."

Yet he'll be taking more back with him than skills. Pacifique says his past two years in China have given him a better understanding of the country.

"Before I came to China, the only thing I knew about it was from films and news reports," he remembers. In his time here, however, he's gotten a more nuanced picture of the country, and come to see the power of its technological innovation and development.

"China has a lot of technologies that can make daily life more convenient, like cab-calling apps - my country doesn't have that," Pacifique said. "After I learn about those technologies, I hope to bring them back to Rwanda."

Newspaper headline: Vo-tech mecca

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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