Wine education booms in China
China is on course to become the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s biggest market by Christmas this year.
A massive surge in WSET students in China proves just how important education is becoming across the Mainland as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan when it comes to alcoholic products, particularly wine.
Speaking to the drinks business on Thursday, WSET chief executive Ian Harris said, “We are now three months into our new academic year and Greater China, which includes Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, is close to the UK, our largest market [in terms of candidate numbers].
“But, by Christmas, Greater China will probably be our biggest market, and I expect to announce at our Awards & Graduation Ceremony at the Guildhall in January that it is bigger.”
Considering the component countries of Greater China separately, Ian showed that Mainland China has in fact overtaken Hong Kong in this academic year, which began in September.
“Mainland China was our fourth largest market, but in the last three months it has jumped to second place, behind the UK [and ahead of Hong Kong and the USA].”
In terms of candidate numbers, he said, “Last year Hong Kong had 4,500 candidates and the Mainland just under 4,000, but in the first three months of this year, the Mainland has attracted almost 1,500 candidates, so it might be on track to get to 6,000 candidates by the end of this year.”
Already Asia-Pacific has overtaken the UK as the WSET’s largest region according to Harris, with 15,000 candidates taking part in the programmes.
Speaking more generally about the WSET’s global operation, he said, “Our business is now four times what is was 10 years ago in terms of candidate numbers and financial turnover.”
Stressing the increasingly international nature of the education provider, he continued, “10 years ago, 65% of the candidates taking WSET programmes were from the UK… but now three quarters of those taking the programmes are from international areas.”
In terms of growth, the UK has enjoyed a 65% increase in candidate numbers over the last 10 years, only suffering from a slight dip when the Thresher Group went into administration in 2009, as the off-licence chain was a significant source of students.
Meanwhile Harris said that the “Americas have seen steady growth, Europe and Africa has had good growth, and Asia-Pacific has tripled in three years.” (See bar graph above).
Harris, who has just returned from a visit to Mainland China, followed by a few days in Hong Kong for the annual HKTDC Wine & Spirits fair, noted the enthusiastic take-up of drinks-related education in Asia.
“People on the courses in China have a real thirst for knowledge and they are there because they want to be there – they are rarely sponsored.
“They realise that if they increase their education and knowledge they will get a better job, or be promoted, and they see education as a major stepping stone to bettering themselves.”
Harris also noted that there are a promising number of WSET students in China who are not from the trade, although lagging the proportion in the UK and USA.
While around 35% of candidates on WSET programmes in the US do not earn their living from the drinks industry, and 30% in London, in China it is 20%.
“The fact that so many consumers in China want to know about the world of wine is very encouraging.”
To encourage yet more students in China to enter WSET programmes, Harris said the organisation had translated its lower level courses into simplified and traditional Chinese two years ago, while this year it recruited a Chinese-speaking employee to its UK office.
The WSET has also just launched its website in Chinese along with a page on China’s Facebook-equivalent, Sina Weibo.
Furthermore, it has introduced its Diploma progamme as a distance-learning course in Shanghai and Beijing this year, although this high-level course is conducted in English.
Speaking of this development, Harris explained, “We have 20 people on each course [Beijing and Shanghai] who are just about to take their first exam.”
“The Diploma is currently run in English because it is difficult finding a team of markers to translate the answers,” he explained.
He also noted that those involved in wine education in Mainland China had advised the WSET against translating wine terms.
“We have decided to leave terms such as malo-lactic fermentation or maceration carbonique in their natural language, whether that’s French or English, because often they don’t translate.”
In terms of the growth in candidate numbers, Harris said overall the WSET was 21% up in the academic year 2011 to 2012, to total 43,254 students.
Mainland China is seeing the fastest followed by Taiwan and for the future, Harris said, “Japan is next target – we have been there for 12 years, but we only have one centre there.”
After Japan, Harris has his sights set on India, where the WSET has six centres. “My view is that India is 10 years behind China – and held back by the draconian duty – but we are doing a lot of spirits-related courses in India.”
Continuing he stated, “India will happen, but it’s a question of when…. And Laithwaites now has [a stake in] the Wine Society of India so we are doing courses for them.”
Other sources of future growth will be South Korea and Thailand believes Harris, who said the WSET will open a second centre in Bangkok in the next six months, as well as creating a WSET website in Korean and Thai to complement the Chinese and Japanese versions.
He also told db that it wouldn’t be long before the WSET opens a satellite office in Hong Kong with one or two full-time staff.
With the growth in candidate numbers and WSET course providers across the Far East, Harris is fully aware of the organisation’s need to uphold standards.
“We do have to take steps to ensure exams are run properly,” he said. “And the mechanics are in place to make sure teachers are doing a good job.”
As part of this Harris said the WSET do make surprise visits to centres across the Asia-Pacific region.
WSET: Key facts
• WSET courses are available in 17 languages: English, Chinese (simplified & traditional), Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Thai and Turkish.
• WSET examinations are currently available in 60 countries.
• More than 500 centres (Approved Program Providers) are currently registered to run WSET programmes.
• As many as 43,254 candidates sat for a WSET qualification in academic year 2011/12.