Christine Zhou was a success by most measures. She had a business degree from a local university and a job in the human resources department of a multinational bank. But that wasn't enough for the ambitious 32-year old Shanghai native. So she spent Yn25,000 on acquiring an overseas accounting certification.
Zhou didn't have to travel abroad to take the course, however. Lessons were just a subway ride away, in the Shanghai classrooms of Metro Education, a training institute that offers the UK's Association of International Accountants certification.
Metro, founded in Shanghai in 1997 in affiliation with a local accounting institute, started out offering just accounting classes. These classes are still sorely needed in China, says founder and executive chairman David Tang. "In Chinese accounting, you are just a bean counter," says the former accounting major from Malaysia.
The first class had 120 students, a total that grew to 180 by the third class. Five years after its launch, Metro has branched out and now offers nine certifications together with other courses ranging from marketing and computer science to golf etiquette. Enrolment for the most recent session was up 90 percent to 1,500 students. The students "want to make themselves more employable," explains Tang.
These days, however, Metro is facing stiff competition. Foreign and local organisations are flooding China with non-degree programmes, some offering overseas accreditations like the AIA certificate, some just offering better English skills. According to official statistics, some 38,000 'training' courses already exist in China. (Since they are not offering a state-sponsored domestic degree, even programmes offering foreign certification fall under the training category unless they are affiliated with a local educational body). It's already a booming industry and, if a new law now being discussed is passed, growth should accelerate. But slack regulation means potential students should double-check before assuming participants are getting a quality education.
Wide range of programmes
The range of programmes available runs a wide gamut, from those offered by organisations such as Metro and the School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPACE) through to English language programmes like English First, to private coaches who charge up to US$2,500 a day. China's relatively strong economy, and the growing presence of foreign companies after the country's entry into the World Trade Organisation, means demand is growing for professional skills that aren't taught in domestic universities. "Society will need more and more education programmes like this," says Darren Fong, SPACE's assistant principal.
Set up in September 2000 as a joint venture between Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University and Hong Kong University, SPACE started out with just four programmes – two focusing on e-commerce, one on international public relations and the other on international accounting. Today, SPACE runs nine courses and last year its revenues totalled Yn9m. Facilities include modern classrooms equipped with internet hook-ups and overheads ready for Power Point presentations.
Because it operates under the auspices of a state school – Fudan – SPACE must officially function as a non-profit organisation. That doesn't mean it isn't making money, but it is reinvesting its excess funds, like the US$500,000 being used to build a new teaching centre, explains Fong.
In a conference room at the Alliance Executive Search offices in Shanghai, half a dozen mid-level executives gather on a Friday evening to improve their English with the help of a former English literature professor from the US. After examining the differences of meaning between 'reserved' and 'reticent,' the executives launch into a discussion about the trend for multinationals to move their headquarters to Shanghai.
"It's good to improve my English skills," says Duan Jian, a financial controller at Bekaert China, a subsidiary of the Belgian steel wire maker, who lived in the US for eight years. Another course participant, Jane Jiang, a consulting manager for Alliance, says: "You can use this [vocabulary] for your daily work."
A typical student in one of these training programmes, at least in Shanghai, tends to be female, with a full-time job in a foreigninvested company and at least one college degree. Metro's Tang has a theory about the shortage of men: "Men think it is not macho to go and study after work." As for the fulltime job, that's easy to explain – these programmes aren't cheap. A series of six courses on global business management and e-commerce at SPACE, for example, costs US$4,700.
Even more specialised offerings are entering the market, too. FGI, a US-based consulting firm, offers four-day leadership training courses for US$2,900. Demand is limited right now, admits Rui Shujie, director of marketing in China. However, she believes that will change as more Chinese move into management positions at multinationals.
Though costly, the courses pay off. Zhou says getting the AIA certification helped her to double her salary. She now works as a financial analyst at Shanghai Maya Investment Enterprises Co, a fast-growing chain of video-rental stores. Phil Feng, another Metro graduate, went from being a financial manager to financial controller at Fuji China. "I think I needed the international qualification," he says. "A lot of overseas companies are coming to China. If people understand a different country's accounting practices, it will help their career."
There are problems. Training courses are not uniformly regulated, so quality is inconsistent. Not all are attached to well-known companies or certification bodies. Because programmes are regulated by many different departments, there are no uniform standards. Private coaches often work under a consultant's license; some programmes, such as those at SPACE and Metro, are regulated by the education bureau because of their connections with a local educational institution. With so many choices, it is left to customers to discover the quality of a programme.
The number of training programmes – both good and bad – may soon leap because in June the National People's Congress began discussing a draft law to promote nonpublic schools. The law would offer those running short-term professional training programmes the same preferential policies in taxation, bank loans and land purchases that state-supported schools enjoy. But other regulations will have to be eased before foreign-invested programmes can really take off, says Metro's Tang. For example, foreign-invested programmes need hard-to-obtain government approval before they can advertise in the mainstream Chinese media. And employing foreign experts requires approval from the foreign affairs office and the public security bureau. "Education is still a controlled industry," he concludes.
Still, Tang is preparing for increased competition by adding more courses, including recreational topics such as wine appreciation. Metro is also building a loyal group of alumni among its 1,500 students, who might recommend the school to friends and colleagues. The company holds social nights for former students, and monthly seminars open to all current and past students. The number of new students who arrive through referrals has risen from 10 percent to 25 percent in the last year. If many are like Zhou, Metro can count on returnees for future business, as well. Besides her accounting courses, Zhou also signed up for a marketing course at Metro.