This article reports on research into Chinese students' perceptions of a pilot key skills' communication course introduced in three vocational education institutions in China. The course was based on key skills' criteria formulated in 2004 by China's Vocational Qualification Appraisal Committee and produced in response to the changing demands of employers operating in a global environment of growth and competition. Intrinsic to the initiative, was the use of student‐centred learning as opposed to the more didactic methods traditionally used in Chinese education. Through institutional case studies, focus groups, class observations and interviews, data was gathered to reveal views and underlying perceptions of the new course. The findings reported here focus on Chinese students' understanding of communication key skills and their changing attitudes to student‐centred learning. The development of the students' self‐awareness and self‐confidence as a result of the new programme is examined and analysed.