THE BLOG
15/10/2013 13:26 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Jiàoyù , Jiàoyù, Jiàoyù

As George Osborne laudably drums up business in Beijing, I'm just back from my own visit there - and I bring tidings to gladden the hearts of the people of the UK.

We have a booming export industry which is taking China by storm and returning billions to the UK economy. Fashion? Cars? Films? TV? All growing nicely, yes, but not the winner...

In fact it's Education, Education, Education, as Chinese-speaking readers will have already deciphered in the title.

Let's start from the beginning. As you may know, the UK is ranked number 2 in the world for Higher Education. We have top-rated universities, research, discoveries, inventions and win Nobel prizes (well done Peter Higgs). We are world class. Only the Americans are better.

China knows how good UK universities are. Over 100,000 Chinese students studying in the UK testify to that. The British Council estimates China will send well over half a million students to study abroad by 2024. At the moment the UK has an impressive market share.

But to keep up, we need to keep investing in relationships with Chinese universities and supporting the English language skills and qualifications these Chinese students are going to need.

We're doing our bit. The British Council is working in Chinese universities in 47 cities the length and breadth of China right now - but there are dozens and dozens more to reach out to.

And, as China's own university system grows, there will be huge opportunities for the UK to send more students, partner for research and even open Chinese campuses as Nottingham University has. And that's before you think about distance learning and digital learning where the Open University, for example, is a world leader.

As well as Chinese students, the UK has over a fifth of all China's joint international programmes - well over 200 approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education. In university partnerships the UK is now world number two, close behind those darned Americans again.

Put simply, China wants to partner us because of what we what have - a world class university system - and the potential benefits for the UK in partnering with China in this are huge in shared research, innovation and future exports.

But our Achilles' heel is that there are less than 5,000 UK students studying in China.

There are good reasons for UK students to 'get on their bikes'. We all know China is a huge player on the world stage and China is investing enormously in its own Universities - which are huge.

I was talking to a UK student in Beijing the other week and she told me it takes her fully 25 minutes to cycle across campus from her halls of residence to her lectures. There are tens of thousands of students at her Chinese university. That's normal. And, as well as being big, they are good and getting better.

The young woman I spoke to was a British Council 'Generation UK' student, part of our response to UK business leaders, who have told us many times they fear for the UK in the global economy if our young people don't get languages, international experience and skills - especially in China.

Our objective - supported by the UK and Chinese governments - is to get 15,000 Generation UK students studying in China within three years. But we're not going to get there without the help of UK schools, parents and pupils. We estimate that only six per cent of UK schools are currently teaching Mandarin, so the opportunities for our young people to learn this important language are few and far between.

The good news is the Chinese are up for helping us. The UK has fully 12% of all China's Confucius Centres worldwide - sharing Chinese language and Chinese culture with UK universities and schools. But we the people need to do our bit too...

We might start with ensuring a warm British welcome - in our sometimes chilly climate - to those Chinese students who have invested so much in coming here. And then we need the UK to raise a generation of students more linguistically prepared and culturally ready to travel to Beijing and beyond: to enjoy China's language and culture and continue to attract China's vast human and economic resources the UK's way.

As so often, a world of opportunity starts with three words: Jiàoyù, Jiàoyù, Jiàoyù.