A shared bottle of wine can lead to many things – including the first UK-backed FE college in China. Mariane Cavalli, principal and chief executive of Warwickshire College, explains.

It’s an interesting time to be in China, less than a month from the 18th National Party Conference that will elect the new leadership and then select the men (some things in China and the UK are remarkably similar) who will govern the country for the next ten years.

The leaders-in-waiting claim that they want to curb economic overheating by focusing on quality not quantity, improving the standards of service industries, and increasing manufacturing industry sustainability. They see the reform of the education system, with a new focus on advanced vocational skills, as the way forward.

The timing is doubly interesting for us as Warwickshire College has established a partnership which led to this week’s opening of the first China-UK National Skills College, in Qingzhou City, Shandong Province.

The idea for the college was conceived (and ‘was ever thus) four years ago or so after a bottle of wine in a bar. In this case it was a Great Wall Merlot, French methode, delicious, in downtown Beijing.

With me was mr Luo Xiaoming, chairman of the Beijing Guozheng International Education Investment, a philanthropic, educational reformer and entrepreneur. Together we mused about establishing a network of skills colleges throughout China based on everything that is great in the UK FE system. I was gazing into a crystal ball, seeing a complete U-turn in UK visa restrictions and the need for us to become a capacity-building partner with our overseas markets while we tempted their students to study here.

By the end of the evening we reckoned that we had all we needed to make it happen: the expertise and knowledge of British FE, the ability to lever in resources and investors, political contacts in both countries to support us, a passion and shared excitement for the venture, and Charles Cao Quin, my vice principal international, who was also with us that night and who is the most networked Sino-UK champion you could meet. Most importantly, we realised that we had a deep and fundamental respect and trust for each other and, vitally, shared values. That night we shook hands on an agreement to work together exclusively — and we have become close friends since.

Nothing much happened to our plans for a couple of years. I moved to Warwickshire College, Charles followed and became “my man in China”, based full-time in Beijing, and Xiaoming busied away laying foundations for our joint venture, with highs intermingling with heart-stopping financial losses along the way. But we never doubted that one day the stars would align.

A joint venture between our partnership and Weifang Engineering Vocational College in Qingzhou provided the start that we needed. With its acres of unused land and masses of under-utilised buildings, combined with a genuine commitment to partnership, innovation and shared risk, it seemed the perfect nursery for us to learn how to do things China-UK style.

The biggest disappointment has been the lack of interest amongst FE and HE partners we approached to help us with this work”

The support of local, provincial and national government has been overwhelming and now we are on target to deliver the best we can offer in purpose-built facilities for up to 20,000 students. With a local population of 900,000 – and 98 million more in the province — there is no fear of under-recruitment. All costs are covered by the partnership and the college receives a healthy proportion of tuition fee income.

Towards the end of this week we will conclude discussions in Shanghai with another partner and so our network of China-UK skills colleges will extend. The biggest disappointment, on the UK side, has been the lack of interest among the FE and HE partners that we approached to help us with this work. The Chinese education and skills market is almost impenetrable and I was offering a route in. Our mistake was to think it might be of value to local partners.

Fortunately we are proud members of the Gazelle Colleges Group and we look forward to inviting them, and their HE networks, to collaborate with us. This project is limitless and there is much to be gained, on both sides, for all of us.

It’s hard to disagree with the Association of Colleges when it says that “colleges are businesses and they need to be business-like”. As a founder member of Gazelle I go much further: our principles are that colleges create wealth, form and grow businesses, and focus on employment outcomes. We know that if we want our students to acquire an entrepreneurial mindset, than we too have to live entrepreneurially and we have to lead entrepreneurial colleges. Warwickshire College is walking the talk.

At the opening ceremony at Weifang, I spoke about my own college’s entrepreneurial mindset: about my entrepreneurial board that has really only backed a vision, and has had to wait a long time for me to provide the detail, and about managers and staff at Warwickshire College who know that we have to combine skills and an entirely new set of qualities and characteristics in our students to help them to succeed. I spoke about the need for us to prepare our students for a networked world, with international businesses and global employment opportunities. Most of the rather mature audience sat unmoved, but the students — probably 500 or so – stood; and I watched them applaud their futures.

While we college leaders are balancing ever-mounting funding pressures and policy upheavals, we have to be as innovative and ambitious as possible, just to provide a roof over the heads of our own country’s students. FE is business focused, entrepreneurial and innovative.

Enterprises such as overseas partnerships don’t necessarily detract from our core business. Far from it. In these challenging times they subsidise it.