China to evaluate foreign university presence and prepare guidelines

China is to take stock this year of international branch campuses and foreign higher education provision with a comprehensive evaluation of Sino-foreign joint university programmes, foreign diplomats in Beijing told University World News.

The evaluation is to prepare for clearer guidelines for foreign universities on the kind of partnerships China is willing to support. The Ministry of Education puts the number of Sino-foreign education programmes at around 1,200.

A number of new foreign joint programmes went ahead in 2011, notably New York University’s campus in Shanghai in partnership with East China Normal University, and Lancaster University in the UK’s tie-up with Guangdong University of Foreign Studies to set up a new campus in Guangzhou called Guanwai-Lancaster University.

At the end of last year the University of California, Berkeley, signed a deal with Shanghai to establish a university in the city, and the ministry announced that it had approved a joint campus run by Kean University from New Jersey in the US and the government of Wenzhou in Eastern Zhejiang province. Although approved by the municipal and provincial governments in 2006, the project had taken another four years to secure ministry approval.

Despite the spate of approvals, according to the ministry more than 70% of the applications for joint Sino-foreign university programmes presented by China’s provinces and cities during 2011 were rejected.

The low quality of proposed foreign education and “unreasonable” agreements between the two sides were the main reasons for rejection, the ministry said in December.

Most tie-ups are negotiated with municipal governments, and there is a tendency for a foreign university to celebrate once a deal is inked with the municipal authorities.

“But the municipalities and provincial education authorities are not making the decisions on their own, they have to go to the Ministry of Education,” said Steven Robinson, a Shanghai-based partner at the legal firm Hogan Lovells International, which represents a number of foreign universities.

“Beijing has not delegated that responsibility to any municipalities and there is also not much desire for Beijing to hear from the foreign partners in that process.”

National interest

Experts said the wider evaluation ordered by Beijing did not necessarily mean a clamp-down on foreign university partnerships, but was aimed at bringing joint programmes more in line with China’s own national needs rather than a foreign partner’s wish list.

Beijing-based diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government was seeking to align new foreign provision more closely with China’s national interests as it moves towards a knowledge economy under its 2010-20 ‘innovation society’ plan.

Future collaborations will need to serve national interests as well as local interest groups and local party officials, said Christopher Ziguras, deputy dean of the International School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at Melbourne’s RMIT University in Australia.

“Educational sovereignty is a preoccupation in China which leads to a wariness of foreign provision that has stalled some foreign branch campuses,” Ziguras told University World News, adding:

“New programme approvals [by foreign partnerships] are very cumbersome. The government asks do we really need these programmes? They will only accept programmes that their own institutions cannot deliver and that do not pose competition for their own universities.”

Pilot evaluation

The latest evaluation follows a pilot programme conducted in 2011 by provincial education departments after the education ministry said it would tighten supervision of joint programmes.

The ministry also said at the time that it would draw up sanctions for those who do not comply. The pilot evaluation was described officially as protecting the interests of students, and ensuring excellence of joint programmes.

The ministry explained that some joint projects attracted students “with bold advertisements” but failed to deliver high quality teaching. Others failed to honour promises to send students abroad as part of the programme.

Results of the pilot have not been released officially, nor have the authorities revealed how many programmes were evaluated during the pilot phase.

The rate of approvals may have slowed while the pilot evaluation was taking place, but it is far from the temporary freeze on new Sino-foreign partnerships suggested by some official media last year.

The Observatory for Borderless Higher Education said in a just-released report that the number of international branch campuses in China has increased from 10 to 17 between 2009 and 2011, with at least seven more in the works – five from the US and two from the UK.

And Steven Robinson described 2011 as “a busy year” for foreign universities wanting to enter China. His firm is handling several new applications from foreign universities “of which three to four could mature,” he said.

“The interest from foreign universities is continuing unabated and in a whole variety of shapes and sizes,” Robinson said.

Caution by authorities

Nonetheless, one of the international universities exploring partnerships in China that did not wish to be named said the authorities had been cautious during the last year. “A lot of opportunities for collaboration are being stymied by the authorities,” he said.

Ultimately, many approvals hinge on finances, with the ministry seeking out the most prestigious degrees for the lowest price. While many foreign universities openly admit wanting to go into China to tap into a large fee-paying student market, this may not sit well with the authorities.

“How do you produce a Harvard [quality] degree for local university tuition fee levels – that is the goal of all the institutions,” said Robinson. “Beijing does not want students paying two to three times local tuition and not getting a job afterwards.

“At present tuition and fees have to be approved by pricing authorities. In the US, they don’t have to deal with pricing authorities, they are looking at the threshold of pain people are willing to bear and what other universities are charging,” said Robinson.

In addition, the ministry has told diplomats that it wants a mix of foreign provision and host cities, not just US universities with partnerships clustered in a few cities such as Shanghai.

“China reserves the right to control the content, the fees and which institutions deliver which programmes to which students under which circumstances,” said Christopher Ziguras of RMIT.

“The impression I got is that in order for a foreign campus to get up and running, it should pose no threat and no competition to any of the existing [Chinese] universities,” he said.

But the most significant change, according to diplomats, is that the ministry is no longer willing to approve programmes in disciplines that already have a high graduate unemployment rate in China. This means that joint programmes in engineering and finance, for example, have a higher chance of approval.

Significantly, Berkeley’s joint centre in Shanghai was a partnership signed with Berkeley’s college of engineering, and does not yet include undergraduate provision that could compete with Shanghai’s existing prestige universities.

The first degrees to be offered by Kean will be in finance, English and technology, all areas with good employment prospects.

China is also looking to foreign partners to deliver courses that encourage innovation. The 2010-20 plan “makes provisions for a new style of higher education, like the type offered [by UK’s Nottingham University] in Ningbo that encourages creativity and innovation and generally equips citizens to take the lead in global business and scientific endeavours,” said Nick Miles, provost and CEO of the University of Nottingham Ningbo.

But Robinson does not envisage any new laws in the wake of the evaluation. The review will be more about clarifying existing regulations on Sino-foreign university partnerships which were drawn up in 2003 and, he said, are “very broad and deep”.

If universities understand China’s needs, there is still room for foreign collaborations and the rules can sometimes appear stricter on paper than in practice, according to Robinson: “The authorities have been accommodating and very pragmatic and willing to listen,” he said.