Not all foreign partnerships are good quality – Top ministry official

China wants to welcome in foreign universities and branch campuses as part of its drive to grow enrolment in the next decade and in line with plans for increased internationalisation. But it is tightening up the rules on what kinds of universities and programmes it will allow in, the official in charge of auditing overseas university partnerships has said.

“Not all foreign partnerships are of good quality,” Wang Lisheng, deputy director general of the China Academic Degree and Graduate Education Development Centre in the Ministry of Education in Beijing told the British Council’s “Going Global” conference in London this week.

Cooperation agreements are in place with some 158 foreign institutions from 30 countries, the largest number being from the UK, Wang said. Around 31 Chinese institutions are running nearly 1,200 joint programmes with institutions in Europe, North America and Asia.

In 2010 the ministry began an evaluation of nine institutions operating programmes in partnership with foreign universities, based on self-evaluation and peer review. By the end of last year it had audited more than 100 courses and programmes.

Revealing the results publicly to an international audience for the first time, Wang said all nine institutions passed the evaluation. He did not name the institutions.

However, only 51% of the programmes – 49 in all – passed. Another 31 programmes passed ‘conditionally’ while three failed. Half a dozen programmes did not qualify for the evaluation for various reasons.

“Passed conditionally actually means failed,” said Wang. “We gave them [the institutions] the opportunity to rectify and improve within a time limit.” There was no question of shutting down failing courses: “If we simply stop the university programme it will affect many students,” he said.

But Zhao Yanzhe, professor of finance at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian, told University World News: “I think they may close down some programmes.

“The Chinese government is approaching foreign universities to come into the Chinese market but they are more and more careful and more focused on quality. They want more input from foreign partners,” Zhao said.

The main reasons for failure and conditional failure were inadequate teaching resources from the overseas partner, “particularly not enough teaching staff and quality resources. The level and quality of joint programmes needs to be improved,” official Wang said.

Most of the foreign partnership programmes were undergraduate courses and very few were at the postgraduate or doctoral level, Wang said, criticising many programmes for having “no distinctive features and many repetitions and overlaps”, particularly in the design of courses.

He said another 150 joint Sino-foreign programmes would be evaluated in the next stage of the process. Based on the results of these two exercises, “we will establish a demo evaluation and roll out an evaluation for the whole country.

“We believe we will identify excellent joint programmes and institutions and that they will set an example,” said Wang.

Zhao argued that it could take some time to expand evaluations nationwide. “It is a costly exercise that requires much manpower to extend to virtually the whole country. It is hard to do these kinds of evaluations; there are just too many joint programmes in China.”

Wang said an aim of Sino-foreign university partnerships was to attract “famous experts” to China. To that end, the ministry wanted to encourage more top international universities to form partnerships with Chinese institutions as a way of helping its own institutions to become world-class.

But he also suggested that the regulations for allowing in new foreign university partnerships would be strengthened. In particular, if a foreign institution prioritised making money in China “then it will get a very low mark in its application”.

Paul Turner, Asia Pacific director of NCUK, a consortium of universities from the north of the UK, said: “Where in the past we used to judge [China’s institutions] we are very much now the ones being judged by the Chinese authorities, and also by students.”