CHINA: Joint research: Alternative to branch campus?

Tie-ups between China and Western universities are announced almost every month. But a new collaborative research centre being set up by England's Birmingham University in Guangzhou in southern China highlights another model of cooperation, with none of the drawbacks of the more popular 'branch campus'.

Western universities, particularly in Britain and the US, are beginning to find that sustaining a branch campus in Asia or the Middle East requires a great deal of time and resources and faculty are becoming more reluctant to spend time at overseas branches, leading to recruitment and quality issues.

"I would not go as far as to say the branch campus model is finished," said KK Cheng, a professor of epidemiology at Birmingham University who is spearheading the research centre collaboration with Guangzhou, announced this week.

"But very early on we at Birmingham decided that is not our priority. Instead, for China we have pursued a model of a graduate school and research institute, training PhD students and post-docs in more than just lecture rooms."

The University of Birmingham Guangzhou Centre, which will open in the next few months, "will help identify, design and coordinate the delivery of joint research projects in Guangzhou, the province of Guangdong and the Pearl River Delta region," the university said in an announcement last week.

"We have liaison offices in Shanghai and Beijing. Initially we saw that many Western universities were exploring the Shanghai prospect. They were visited weekly by Western universities seeking partnerships. Shanghai is quite burnt over in terms of partnership," said Edward Harcourt, Director of International Relations at Birmingham.

Branch campuses in China mainly enrol undergraduate students and require a large number of fee-paying students to be financially viable.

"A lot of overseas universities go to China and want to set up a campus and they mainly cater to undergraduates. Some have a better time doing it than others. Some are more successful, some are less so, but many of them are top-down initiatives," said Cheng.

"This often means the Western institutions make up their minds that they want to go in to China first, then look at where they can be useful or complementary."

Problems for institutions such as Duke University in America, where staff are opposing an administration-led bid to set up a Duke branch campus on the outskirts of Shanghai in Kunshan, have highlighted some of the difficulties.

"There is a lesson people can learn from Duke," Cheng argued.

While there are different models of branch campuses - including full campuses with a mixture of local and home country faculty teaching a variety of specialist disciplines, and smaller outposts that teach only in-demand subjects such as business - within the university staff and faculty may not be behind an administration that is gung-ho about a branch campus in China. Even when branch campuses are set up, faculty may be reluctant to spend time teaching there, even for short stints.

However, the Birmingham Guangzhou Centre will be a graduate research institute, which will conduct high quality collaborative science and social research.

"We think it is more sustainable to set up [research] in areas that our own faculty are interested in, as well as helping them produce more high quality research papers for publication. That way our faculty will be more interested in going there," said Cheng.

A major feature of the centre will be a clinical trials unit in Guangzhou. "If we conduct clinical trials, it will also support PhD students," Cheng explained.

At first, the research will be funded by Birmingham University and Guangzhou municipality on a shared basis. But Cheng believes major research and clinical trials could attract funding from large agencies in the West, and later from the pharmaceutical industry.

One of the attractions of biomedical research, which forms the bulk of science research collaborations between China and other countries, is that China provides access to a population cohort size that would be difficult to find for clinical trials in the West.

It is clear that a major interest on the Chinese side in such university collaborations is to increase the number of research citations and to be published in major Western research journals - an important measure of global scientific prowess. Research collaborations with Western partners has helped Chinese academics gain access.

The Guangzhou Biobank Cohort Study, into genetic and environmental influences on the development of chronic diseases, which has been a long-running collaboration between the Guangzhou municipality, Birmingham University and Hong Kong University, resulted in a large number of academic publications in prestigious journals - some 68 since 2006.

"That helped put Guangzhou on the scientific map," said Cheng. It also gained Birmingham enough trust to pave the way for the new Guangzhou research centre, which will scale up many other projects including clinical research.

Although the number of papers being published by Chinese scientists in top research journals is rising, the country is not well represented in medical journals that publish papers on clinical trials and evidence-based medicine.

China has invested hugely in science laboratories and research and development, but there is still a big gap between discovery and innovation and delivery. Clinical trials research and other research and development could help bridge that gap.

"Many pharmaceutical companies are eying China as a major market for drugs," said Cheng, but they need access to relevant local evidence-based research. He also sees "an opportunity here to engage more widely".

Cheng pointed to China's announcement in 2009 that it would spend some US$131 billion revamping its dysfunctional health care system. "Every city in China has a five year plan to develop primary care. They will need some 300,000 GPs [general practitioners] by the end of the decade. There is a real shortage of GPs."

China is looking to more advanced countries to help in healthcare capacity building. Cheng also sees an opportunity for training primary care general practitioners in Guandong: "We are doing a lot of work with the Guangzhou health bureau. These are much more extensive relationships than simply delivering a few lectures or overseeing research."

Meanwhile, he said the best research has to be relevant beyond publications and citations.

"Publishing papers is not enough. Research must also help policy-makers, officials and researchers understand local problems. We hope the research, for example on the link between passive smoking and disease in Guangzhou, will have an impact on policy. The research helps to wake people up."

But the main reason why major research collaborations are seen as long term and sustainable is that "Guangzhou, like many Chinese cities, wants to move up the value chain", said Cheng.

China's government understands that its economic growth cannot simply be from export-led manufacturing of cheap consumer goods. It also wants to increase innovation, including in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, as well as in areas such as energy technology and environmental research and technology, which are other areas of research collaboration at the Birmingham Guangzhou Centre.

"The case for being in Guangzhou is compelling. No one needs any persuading that China is an economy to be reckoned with. There are lots of opportunities," said Cheng.

Related links

CHINA: Students against US prices for 'branch' degrees
CHINA-UK: New campus for Nottingham in Shanghai
CHINA: Shanghai reaches out to America's Ivy League
HONG KONG: Joint research funding with China urged
CHINA: Innovation and research to boost economy
CHINA: Access to overseas research disrupted
ASIA: World-class medicine pursuit drives collaboration