This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
Six international universities have come together in a select new grouping to advise the Chinese government on how to absorb the lessons learned from Sino-foreign university collaborations, in order to develop and modernise China’s higher education sector.
Known as the Sino-foreign Cooperative University Union, the new grouping was announced by Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, or XJTLU, after its inaugural meeting at XJTLU’s campus in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, on 5 June.
The group also includes the University of Nottingham Ningbo, New York University Shanghai, Duke Kunshan University, Wenzhou-Kean University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen.
The group’s new Presidents’ Forum has pledged to meet annually.
A high-level delegation from the Ministry of Education and Foreign Affairs Ministry officials took part in the inaugural meeting.
But observers note that Western university leaders either based in China or overseas were not present – highlighting that this was a meeting mainly of Chinese officials and university presidents who are members of the Communist Party, advising the government on broader policies.
“The union is designed to explore issues of common concern by sharing experiences and best practices,” XJTLU said in a statement issued on 6 June.
“Similarly, the annual [university presidents] forum is expected to strengthen communications among union members and to enhance the influence of the Sino-foreign Cooperative University Union over the reform and development of higher education in China.”
Cen Jianjun, director of the international cooperation and communication department in the Ministry of Education, spoke about the importance of the union and the positive effects it could have on wider education in China.
Xi Youmin, president of XJTLU, told the meeting that the traditional way of instilling knowledge in China’s universities was now becoming obsolete. In the past the main role of the university was to “bid farewell to ignorance” but now it has become clear that there are many ways to acquire knowledge.
“It is time for us [the union] to redefine education."
Xi spoke of the “competitive advantage” of student-centred learning, innovative administrative structures and “lack of historical burdens” as the reasons why universities such as XJTLU “will lead the next generation” of international higher education institutions.
Sino-foreign joint ventures were “a new thing” in higher education in China and as such they faced new problems such as how to have greater autonomy in admissions, how to deal with college entrance exam scores, financial support and other issues that ordinary Chinese universities did not have to grapple with.
Xi said the next step would be to strengthen exchanges between the institutions of the union, including between students and faculty members.
All six universities involved, commonly regarded outside China as foreign branch campuses, are legally independent entities formed as joint ventures with Chinese universities but with the international partner having total academic control and a level of autonomy unknown among the vast majority of China’s universities.
Most other foreign branch campuses have been set up as internal colleges of Chinese universities and are subject to their jurisdiction.
“That is why this group is so small,” said Mike Gow, a Suzhou resident, postdoctoral fellow at New York University Shanghai – NYU Shanghai – and close observer of higher education in China.
“These joint ventures all [pursue] different models of higher education so they want to start a discussion on what can be learned and how this can be transferred to the Chinese higher education system. This will operate as a kind of think-tank on joint venture universities,” Gow told University World News.
XJTLU and Nottingham Ningbo follow the British system while NYU Shanghai, set up as a joint venture with East China Normal University, and Duke Kunshan University, set up by Duke in the United States and Wuhan University, are based on a US model.
China is intent on building critical thinking among its students and wants to see how it is done in the joint-venture universities.
“China really wants to know how to internationalise campuses and these kinds of partnerships are a very quick way to transform the campus atmosphere. It is difficult to change the culture of an existing university; much easier to create a new institution,” Gow said.
Although small compared to the overall higher education system, Sino-foreign university collaborations are growing, Zhang Xiuqin, a director-general in the Ministry of Education in charge of international cooperation and exchanges, said in official media last year.
“Many eminent universities have been introduced to China and helped us with the innovation of the [higher education] system and in running institutions,” she said. “We can conclude and extract a set of methods to help our reform and promote the development of higher education.”
In late February she said at a ministry press conference that as of January 2014 the number of Chinese institutions involved in Sino-foreign cooperative programmes was as high as 1,780.
“These Sino-foreign universities were established as experiments to see what the Chinese system can learn from the joint ventures. The original idea was to have an experimental zone to do what public universities cannot do,” Qiang Zha, associate professor of education at York University in Canada, explained.
Now the government wanted to see what lessons it could draw from the joint ventures.
In addition, the government wanted to take stock of the system as it is “pushing for a very aggressive and brave pilot project – it’s all about universities running their own affairs and having more autonomy,” said Qiang, referring to attempts to confer more autonomy on the country’s most prestigious universities such as Peking and Tsinghua in Beijing.
“Foreign and offshore universities might be able to give them some ideas,” he said.
For example, the government also sees Sino-foreign campuses as reducing the cost to Chinese students of receiving a world-class international education, and it has been pleased at the number of international students these joint universities have managed to attract.
Last August NYU Shanghai welcomed its first batch of just over 300 students, 145 of them international students.
Hard to replicate
But analysts admit that the way the Sino-foreign universities are run could be hard to replicate in China’s huge higher education system.
“The implications for the Chinese system will be different because the joint venture university can charge so much more money; they are resourced in a different way,” Gow said.
According to a report in Beijing Business Today, published in early March: "Because of the different educational systems and social values, the success of their advanced teaching and management experience is difficult to replicate in China.
“Conversely, under the guise of foreign cooperation in running schools, cooperation tends to become a profit-making tool for certain institutions," Sang Peng, president of the Beijing Overseas Service Industry Association, was quoted as saying.
Some recent news reports, including the one published by Beijing Business Today, even suggest that the status of foreign joint programmes was ‘plummeting’ among Chinese students because of the high fees and language problems as courses are taught in English.
This is despite the “unabated enthusiasm of foreign universities in China”, the magazine noted.