Learning cities – a view from China

I’ve always been interested in the idea of the learning city. As a way of bringing together different actors, and focusing them on some clear and agreed goals, it represents a potentially productive way of raising skills in a way that is focused on regenerating the city’s economy while providing opportunities for bridging social and ethnic divisions. An invitation to spend a week exploring the concept with colleagues from the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences was irresistable.

In Britain, the learning city movement has run out of steam. Many city councils signed up to the notion more or less enthusiastically in the heady days when David Blunkett’s policies seemed to promise a new civic understanding of lifelong learning. For some, it was little more than a branding exercise; for some, a way of bringing together different parts of the education and skills system, including institutions (like colleges) that were no longer under local education authority control; and for others, more ambitiously, it was a way of putting learning and skills back at the core of their local economic development strategy.

Looking back, it is clear that the learning city movement went furthest where there was a clear focus, combined with strong civic leadership and partners who were willing to make compromises. Some of the initiatives were quite modest, as in Exeter’s attempt to focus attention on a small number of measurable educational outcomes. Glasgow took a different approach, starting by consulting citizens in its least advantaged areas, and focussing strongly on educational and social inclusion – a strategy that makes sense given Glasgow’s circumstances. Other cities tried to engage with universities and cutting edge businesses to develop new economic sectors such as renewable technologies.

None of the UK cities, though, seemed to me to follow a sustained strategy for enough time to make a significant and lasting impact. Few engaged with a wide enough range of partners, while some found that a few public sector institutions were more interested in competing than collaborating. Nor has central government offered much of a lead. Even in the hey-day of Blunkett’s ‘learning age’, there was little sense of co-ordination between the various different government ministries that were involved in urban policy. In the end, the British learning city movement seems to have amounted mainly to a series of ad hoc and often short term initiatives, with little co-ordination and limited impact.

Will Beijing fare much better? Beijing’s municipal government declared in 2007 that it was embarking on a process of ‘learning city construction’, requiring all 29 of its departments to work to a common set of goals, reporting annually on progress made. Importantly, it found an ‘early hit’ in the 2008 Olympics. As well as setting goals for individual municipal departments to develop new skills in order to deliver a successful global sporting occasion, the municipal government also developed public education about the Olympics movement , in the hope of persuading citizens to embrace both the occasion and the flood of foreign visitors it would bring. And it targeted particular groups, persuading taxi drivers and other key service workers to learn a smattering of English.

Short term successes are important to get momentum under way. Once the wheels are turning, the city government faces a longer term challenge of maintaining and harnessing this initial enthusiasm and drive. This is the stage that Beijing is in now, and my visit included a lecture to adult education practitioners and policy makers from across the city as a way of opening up discussions about experiences elsewhere.

It is tempting to draw some obvious contrasts with the 2012 Olympics and the 2014 Commonwealth Games. I’m not aware of any plans to teach taxi drivers to communicate with overseas visitors in either Glasgow or London, nor to encourage adult education institutions to exploit the enthusiasm and interest that both events are stimulating. As for the idea of co-ordinating plans for a learning city across every city council department for the next five years – well, I’d settle for bringing together four or five of the main actors.

But neither London nor Glasgow is Beijing. It differs in size (Beijing is three times London’s size, and four times Scotland’s), and age profile (Beijing is notably younger than any UK city). It is highly overcrowded and heavily polluted, so that learning city construction has a marked emphasis on sustainability. And of course, the political frameworks differ enormously.

 In China, all major policies are derived from a centrally-determined five year plan. Beijing’s city government may or may not be able to influence the plan, but it has to carry it out, as do the practitioners that I met during my visit. Chinese policy makers are not under any immediate pressure to announce new policies every three years, and package them as the latest and newest thing for an increasingly cynical electorate. Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond might envy the deference of the Chinese media, as well as the absence of cyber-trolls. Ironically, I couldn’t even access my own blog from Bejing, let alone the subversive world of Twitter and Facebook!

But can we afford to ignore the drive and determination of this vast country? Anyone who visits Beijing cannot fail to be impressed. The city offers many lessons to visitors, bad as well as good, but you cannot leave without realising the futility of Europe’s target, agreed in Lisbon in 2000, of becoming ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’. And of course, the EU hoped to achieve this splendid goal by 2010.

Personally, I don’t much mind if our economy shrinks slightly in the future, while China’s grows. We consume plenty as it is, and it’s time the rest of the world had some of what we’ve enjoyed. But let’s not kid ourselves. Bluntly, any politician who tells us that we  can improve our relative competitiveness without bettering China’s investment in education and science is lying.