‘Fast track’ to internationalisation

The shape, speed and content of internationalisation of higher education in China will depend on a number of factors, including, for example, the level of commitment from the highest ranks in government, the interest of foreign students and the nature of the motivation within higher education institutes throughout the country.

If the volume of the discussion has anything to do with it, you cannot escape the conclusion that in China internationalisation of higher education is on a fast track. In just the last weeks of 2014 there were big and small conferences on the subject.

The ninth Confucius Institute Conference was held on 7 December in Xiamen in Fujian province. Over 2,000 decision-makers and participants representing Confucius Institutes and partner institutions from China and worldwide gathered at the conference.

Its agenda was to consider developments over the next 10 years. There are presently 475 Confucius Institutes and 851 Confucius Classrooms in 126 countries worldwide, with about 3.5 million students having registered over the past 10 years.

The Confucius Institute’s charter is to promote Chinese language and culture abroad. The current estimate is that there are about 100 million Mandarin learners around the world.

Over the first 10 years of the Confucius Institute about 100,000 teachers, volunteers and managers have been involved in Institute activities and have helped to train about 200,000 Mandarin teachers in more than 100 countries.

On 12 December there was a large conference in Beijing on both outgoing and incoming mobility in China. The conference was attended by hundreds of leaders, decision-makers and practitioners at central and local administrative and institutional level.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for more government activity to enhance talent acquisition to achieve national rejuvenation.

There is no doubt China joined the race for talent quite some time ago, but the country wants to move things up another notch.

The conference in Beijing called for the government to improve service to foreign students in China to enhance international friendship and exchange. It also presented a clear call for the enhancement of a sound environment in which returnees could flourish both in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship, both key elements in a knowledge economy.

Since 1978, when the country started its reform and opened up, China has sent some three million students overseas. Presently, there are some 360,000 international students studying in China.

Central government interest

Apart from these big conferences, there were also smaller meetings in a number of places in China.

An international round-table discussion was held at Tongji University in Shanghai on 12 December. Another one took place on 22 December at Beijing Normal University on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the education faculty.

The topics at these conferences attest to the institutional drive and interest in internationalisation. Both smaller conferences looked forward to exploring the challenges and opportunities in internationalisation.

The presence of senior officials of the Ministry of Education showed a keen interest in developments at the coalface and evidence of a good dialogue between universities and those capable of setting and funding the agenda.

Participants felt a critical development could be China’s expansion of its stock of potential world class universities from the current 39 “985 project” universities to an even larger number in six years’ time.

This was promoted as one way to get international students out of the classrooms learning Mandarin and into other disciplines fuelling China’s drive for innovation.

* Jiang Bo is vice-president at Tongji University in China and Robert Coelen is professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education at Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.