Suzhou’s new forms of foreign university collaboration

Universities from a number of countries have set up branch campuses in China, hoping to tap into the country’s desire for a Western education and a large pool of middle-class students. But China wants new types of university partnerships that tie in closely with its aspiration to drive up research and innovation.

Last month Australia’s Monash University and China’s Southeast University, or SEU, which is based in Nanjing, formally launched a new joint campus in Suzhou Industrial Park near Shanghai.

It joined other branch campuses in Suzhou in Jiangsu province on the East coast, such as Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University offering undergraduate and masters degrees awarded by Liverpool University in England. The National University of Singapore’s (NUS) large research facility in Suzhou was inaugurated in May.

But according to official Chinese media the SEU-Monash Joint Graduate School is the “first Sino-foreign graduate facility approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education".

“We will see high-profile researchers coming here more and more from Asia, particularly in the hard sciences and medical science,” said Monash Vice-chancellor Ed Byrne at the launch ceremony on 24 October.

“Most Chinese people want to work in China though, because it is one of the most exciting countries for research in the world. We will be offering joint projects where researchers can work in both countries.”

And with SEU among China’s "Project 985" universities granted extra government funding to become world-class institutions, Byrne has been open about accessing China’s growing research funding pot through the collaboration at a time when funding in Australia is flatlining.

The graduate school will feature postgraduate courses in disciplines such as nanotechnology, biomedicine, environmental science, transportation, industrial design, and thermal and mechanical engineering. The first cohort will graduate in 2014 with degrees from both SEU and Monash.

Monash plan

The new SEU-Monash site in Suzhou is owned and funded by the provincial government, with operations jointly run by the two universities.

“It’s a very large facility in the heart of one of China’s largest and most prominent commercial economic zones,” Abid Khan, Monash’s pro vice-chancellor for global engagement, told University World News.

A separate joint research institute is being built for research projects on nanotechnology, bioinformatics, water, energy and new materials.

“These projects were discussed in detail at the opening of the facility last month and work groups are now established behind them,” said Khan, adding: “The next phase of the operations is currently under way with the selection of research themes and equipping research facilities accordingly.

“Research activities undertaken will have access to government and industry funding. For universities, doing research is always expensive. China not only gives Monash access to a large pool of talent, the cost of doing research is considerably lower than in Australia,” said Khan.

“China is going to be a powerhouse in research. It already is – it’s publishing as many papers now as the highest performers in the world, and now they seem to quite logically move up in the quality stakes. And that’s going to be achieved, whether we’re part of that or not.”

It is not just about subsidising research. China is part of Monash’s plan to build a global presence, increase industry connections and scale up its ability to tackle major international projects.

“If you are not part of the big solutions to the major challenges around the world, which are being solved now by networks of organisations, then are you really playing at the top end?” asked Khan.

“Australia needs to access international talent, at postgraduate level, at doctoral and professorial level. If we don’t have the deepened collaborations, the pathways to access [those projects] become weaker.”

Way into business links

University-led research is also a way into forms of economic and business collaboration that can be less politicised than other types of partnership in China.

“Universities are good gateways to any region, broadly speaking; because there is usually international collaboration going on somewhere [among academics] already and there isn’t a political backdrop,” Khan said.

“Let’s say Australia needs to be part of the next generation of manufacturing, but it’s a small player. Companies talking to companies isn’t always the easiest way to do that, or even governments talking to governments.

“Sometimes the university, working on the more fundamental side, where people are more open to jointly arriving at solutions”, can be a better way to gain access, explained Khan.

Monash is not alone in using academic research to spearhead broader partnerships.

Singapore’s NUS said openly in a statement about its research institute – NUSRI – in Suzhou: “NUS schools and faculties are also leveraging on NUSRI as a base to strengthen their presence in China.”

It added that the NUS School of Design and Environment’s research and design laboratory within NUSRI would “consolidate its academic activities in China”.

The speed of progress has been one of the attractions. In the past two-and-a-half years, 11 NUS-led research projects have been set up in Suzhou and NUSRI has secured research funding of RMB18 million (US$3 million) from funding agencies in China, according to NUS, which expects to have some 300 researchers in Suzhou in the next few years.

Main areas

Suzhou Industrial Park first focused on manufacturing, initially built with investment from Singapore. China’s aim was to create leading manufacturing sectors by clustering industries and research establishments, according to the Suzhou Industrial Park Administrative Committee, SIPAC.

Nanotechnology is one of the main focuses.

The ‘SUN-WIN’ Joint Research Institute for Nanotechnology was founded by Soochow University, the University of Waterloo in Canada and the USTC-UC Berkeley Joint Nano-Science and Technology Institute, which was set up in 2011 by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Science and Technology of China, or USTC.

It brings together around 200 top scientists in the nanotechnology field, according to a SIPAC report released last month. The cluster has helped spawn 200 nanotech-related companies in Suzhou, SIPAC reported.

During the first eight months of 2013, total output from the sector increased by 50% year-on-year to RMB8 billion (US$1.3 billion).

Almost a dozen Chinese universities and some leading Chinese and international research organisations such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the US’ Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, leader in molecular biology and genetics, have also established a presence in the park.

The research-industry links are important for Monash, which has a strong engineering bent with areas of interest including water projects, bio and nanotechnology and civil engineering.

“Because of the levels of investment, China recycles its building stock more rapidly than most other countries. So in the longer term, we could be working alongside collaborators to establish new cities that are maybe robust to a climate change or robust to a water shortage,” Khan said.


But it may not be all plain sailing. One of the key bottlenecks is staff.

“Ironically, one of the issues of getting good international universities into the region was to start to act as a draw for high-performing staff to the region, because that is a good provincial development plan,” said Khan.

“But if you are in a new, vibrant area, it is still hard to get people. You are competing with the high-end universities across the rest of the country, in China.”

With 45 masters students already in place, the planned research facility is expected to house around 1,400 students. “Obviously we will need very talented people,” noted Khan.

With other new research facilities being established in Suzhou, Khan acknowledged there could be a crunch in the search for talent. “We haven’t entered the fray fully in terms of getting those numbers up but it is certainly coming.”