British organisations missing out on Chinese surge towards new skills horizon

05 November 2010

The head of the British chemical science community, returning from a week-long working tour of China, said that not enough British organisations are grasping the remarkable opportunities offered by the phenomenal expansion of science and engineering in the People's Republic.

Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "The expansion of the science base alone is quite astonishing, with millions rushing to study and to practise science and engineering. While the Royal Society of Chemistry is very engaged there with staff and offices, we are struck by the absence of other UK bodies." 

Reflecting the interest that the government of China has in science and training, its Vice Premier joined Richard Pike and other guests for a unique group photograph.

Richard Pike with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang

Richard Pike, centre, with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, second from right

"The clock is ticking away. Unless we make a more dramatic contribution we will arrive at the station but the train will have left."  

Dr Pike spoke to 2,000 delegates at the Conference for the International Exchange of Professionals (CIEP), held in Shenzhen, China, and organised by the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA).

He said today: "China has embarked on an extraordinary drive to acquire professional skills from around the world to support its 10% annual economic growth as hundreds of millions of manual workers migrate within the country from the land to cities and industrialised areas to seek a part in the new national prosperity.

"This upsurge of activity and growth will continue unabated so we in the UK have to decide if we stand and watch the inevitable happen or plunge in and join wholeheartedly in the action. My own organisation is plunging in and I recommend others to follow. We already have two offices with staff in Beijing and Shanghai."

SAFEA has networked with hundreds of international bodies, including the RSC, to arrange for retired or part-time professionals to go to China to give advice in their field of expertise.

Dr Pike added: " The sheer scale was impressive. Exhibitors varied from one-man consulting companies in Australia and Luxembourg, to major service providers from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the ethnic Chinese communities from the US and UK. There were a small number of larger bodies from the UK, but more needs to be done by UK entities to recognise and exploit the opportunities available."

Typically, experts travel to China for a few weeks at a time, with all expenses paid, but longer periods are supported with a more substantive remuneration package agreed with the hosting company, university or public organisation. 

Dr Pike added: "If  the UK embraced this scheme more effectively, it would create a growing cohort of individuals and organisations familiar with China, who could engage with the corporate sector here and promote further links. Too few in Britain appreciate the scale of the change that is taking place, which will see China expand its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to double its current size in less than a decade.

During the plenary sessions of the conference, there was much discussion around mobility of labour, immigration restrictions in China, Europe and the US, educational comparability, shortages of skills in China, the need to attract both overseas Chinese and non-Chinese, remuneration in China (where the average GDP/capita is still low), issues relating to the Chinese traditions of hierarchy and seniority, and better articulation of career opportunities. 

"The mantra was for China to 'change the brain drain into a brain gain' and it is nothing less than a massive reversal of the diaspora that in the last few hundred years had sent Chinese communities to the four corners of the world."

The keynote opening speech of the conference was given by the Vice Premier of China, Zhang Dejiang, who in the choreographed formal photograph of guests took centre stage with Dr Pike and the Deputy Minister of Education from the Republic of Belarus.

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