Beijing wants more in-depth HE links with Europe

In a flurry of recent international meetings of education policy-makers and university leaders, China is deepening its higher education links with Europe. A more in-depth relationship would include a stronger focus on understanding the management and governance of public universities to enable increased international collaboration.

Academics and policy-makers who took part in the European Union (EU)-China people-to-people high-level dialogue in Brussels last month said China and European countries had moved on from mainly facilitating student exchanges, to discussing institutional-level cooperation and creating joint research platforms that would also include partners from outside China and Europe.

Jianmin Li, minister-counsellor and head of the education and culture office at China’s mission to the EU in Brussels, said at an EU-China education conference in December that beyond student exchanges China wanted “more scholar exchange and institutional cooperation”.

According to China’s official media, one of the aims of the meeting in Brussels of both policy-makers and university presidents from China and Europe was to “provide policy suggestions and enhance compatibility” between the higher education systems of the two sides.

“It is not just about both sides gaining a few more foreign students. It is much more about creating a global architecture for collaboration,” said Michael Gaebel, head of the higher education policy unit at the European University Association, or EUA.

“Particularly for China’s university presidents, the discussion has moved on to university governance that may impact on higher education partnerships, and the financial rules that underpin them,” Gaebel told University World News.

Yang Xinyu, deputy secretary general of the China Scholarship Council, told University World News: “We are interested in the European university model to facilitate increased mobility and to understand how universities can work together.”

She said this was important because collaboration and exchanges with Europe were more university-based compared to the United States, where collaborations tended to be between individual professors.

EU mindset changes

The EUA, together with the Academic Cooperation Association and the China Scholarship Council, organised the first meeting of the EU-China Higher Education Platform for Cooperation and Exchange (HEPCE) in Brussels on 25 April, which included university leaders and ran alongside the EU-China policy dialogue.

The event attracted 200 delegates and 80 university representatives. It was also attended by the EU’s Commissioner for Education Androulla Vassiliou and China’s Vice Minister for Education Du Yubo.

Delegates said it was evident that EU policy-makers and many European university leaders have moved on from their recent mindset of seeing China merely as a source of fee-paying students, and from a tendency to regard China as a competitor rather than a partner in research.

Just a few years ago “it was very difficult to convince European vice-chancellors that Asia was not just a provider of fee-paying students. Now no one in Europe can ignore that China has become important globally for research and will continue growing in importance,” Gaebel told University World News.

In the past four to five years, institutions in both China and Europe have become more outward looking and internationalised and therefore more able to build deeper international collaborations, Gaebel said, acknowledging the contradiction that public universities were established for national purposes and funded with national money.

Friendly environment

Yang said compared to the past, China’s universities had created a “more friendly environment” for collaboration and exchanges. “Services [in Chinese universities] have improved dramatically – government policy is really supporting that,” she said.

The EU, for its part, is interested in promoting European-style higher education in China.

“My impression is that the EU wants to export some of the instruments of the Bologna reforms, such as qualifications frameworks, and recognition of periods of study in China,” said Academic Cooperation Association Director Bernd Wächter.

Jianmin Li said in December that Europe’s Bologna process was of interest to China. “It is interesting that in the education area, the EU has no legislative power and works to issue guidance with universities. Still the Bologna process has been very successful. It made Europe much stronger and allows Europe to compete with Canada and the US.”

China’s interest in Bologna and other higher education models as ways of strengthening a country’s competitive edge, is also linked to China’s broader policy of improving higher education quality, and reducing disparities between universities in the richer eastern part of the country and the more deprived west.

In the past China’s higher education globalisation was “propelled by the desire to create ‘world-class’ universities”, said Gaebel. But now its interest in collaboration has broadened to “improving the system and how to use higher education as a motor for economic development.

“It’s not just about league tables and performance but also about social fabric and how it develops,” Gaebel told University World News.

Different university models

Meetings such as the HEPCE were “a good way of bridging policy decision-making and universities,” Gaebel said. “We are able to talk to policy-makers and give them a hint of how [higher education] can be developed.”

Roger Woods, associate pro vice chancellor at the University of Nottingham, who attended the HEPCE meeting, said: “One thing China is getting from Europe with the various collaborations is a range of [higher education] models.

“China is interested in the British model, the US model, but also the European model,” said Woods, adding that Beijing wanted to turn out “graduates who will fit into a very transformed economy”.

As part of its 10-year ‘innovation society’ plan, China is aiming to improve the quality and number of graduates as it evolves from a manufacturing hub into a knowledge economy.

“Despite its own progress, China is still learning from Europe about better models of university governance,” said Wächter. “Looking at higher education systems as a whole is certainly a good idea.”

But some said China was deepening its approach to higher education development rather than changing it, and that its bid for world-class research universities modelled on those in the US would continue.

“It is a shift to Europe, but not a sudden abandoning of earlier policies,” Gaebel said.

And it is not just about national development. China still has ambitious plans to be an international higher education hub.

Du Yubo, China’s vice minister for education, said in Brussels that the country was seeking to attract more foreign students. By 2020 some 500,000 international students would be in China, making the country the “largest Asian destination for international students”.

Some 35,000 students from EU countries are currently studying in China. Du said that in the next five years the Chinese government would offer some 30,000 scholarships for European students and researchers.