University partnerships are vital to China’s ambitions

China is using international university partnerships to cement its regional and global position, making higher education a jumping-off point not just for research collaboration but also for city to city and industrial partnerships.

While the Asian giant is keen to bridge the quality gap between its universities and top universities overseas, it also needs to collaborate with top Western universities to boost innovation as it moves from being a manufacturing economy up the value chain.

“With the further deepening of [higher education] reform and opening up, the internationalisation of education in China is accelerating,” said Zhong Weihe, president of Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, in a recent speech, referring to the National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development, 2010-2020.

The reform document states China will “further open education” through “promoting international exchanges and cooperation, introducing quality education resources abroad and upgrading exchanges and cooperation”.

Zhong said his university alone had signed cooperative agreements with some 305 overseas universities across more than 43 countries or regions. By 2015 the university had 180 international programmes for students, including 56 joint and dual degree programmes, he said.

“There is a lot of room for improvement on China’s higher education in terms of its universality, exchangeability and openness,” he said.

The emergence of China, its increasing economic ambitions and what it means for higher education will be a topic of debate at the British Council’s Going Global 2016 conference on 3-5 May in Cape Town, South Africa.

Shifting focus

The focus of top Chinese universities is changing as the higher education system shifts from providing basic workforce skills to developing innovative capacity, while at the same time riding in tandem with China’s global economic ambitions.

“In stepping up from being a manufacturing place to somewhere that needs more creativity and innovation, China recognises it needs a bit of assistance and help and this is part and parcel of that direction of travel,” said Nick Miles, Nottingham University’s pro-vice-chancellor for advancement and former CEO of Nottingham University’s campus in Ningbo, China.

But it also fits in with China’s broader ambitions. “One interpretation is that China sees that it needs partnerships to become a global player, and acknowledges that it cannot do that alone,” said Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education systems at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and co-author of a recent paper on China’s higher education internationalisation. University collaborations can lead to broader linkages, she argued.

Broader partnerships

For example, the decade-long partnership between UK’s Nottingham University and China, which set up the first Sino-foreign university in China in Ningbo, a port city of 8 million people – has evolved into a much wider partnership between the two cities.

An agreement was signed last month for city-to-city cooperation on trade and investment with trade offices being set up by both sides. The Nottingham city trade and investment office will be hosted on Nottingham’s Ningbo Campus.

“The first Five Year Plan between Nottingham and Ningbo is the first cooperative plan not only between the UK and China but between China and anywhere else in the world," said Vice-mayor of the Ningbo Municipal Government Wang Jianhou after the agreement was signed on 26 February.

The city-to-city agreement “is a perfect example of the role played by the university in providing talent and that is generating confidence” between the two sides, said Miles.

“The minute you start generating talent, it attracts talent; and that starts attracting companies and organisations who want to access the talent flow, and that in turn feeds into other areas – trade and investment, sporting and cultural, civic as well as higher education, as well as feeding more broadly into the cities where they [the university collaborations] exist,” Miles told University World News.

Xiamen University in Malaysia

Similarly, a foray by China’s Xiamen University into Malaysia – billed as China’s first overseas branch campus – will be part of a much wider collaboration between universities and Malaysian and Chinese industries which are investing heavily in Southeast Asia.

It is part of a plan to involve universities as a jumping-off point for wider economic developments, trade and research – one of China’s aims in funding the campus to the tune of MYR 652 million (US$159 million) for the first phase.

Xiamen University Malaysia opened its campus last month with its first 160 students. This exceeded expectations, according to Wang Ruifang, the Malaysian campus president, who said initially up to 100 students had been expected for the courses taught in English, which include traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese studies, journalism, accounting, new energy and engineering.

Degrees will be granted by Xiamen University in Fujian Province in China, and will be recognised by the Chinese and Malaysian governments. The longer term plan is for it to grow to 10,000 students.

It is being seen in a much wider context, however, of major Chinese investments in Malaysia. The campus will be home to a China-ASEAN marine research institute that would be part of China’s so-called 'One Belt, One Road' initiative – a huge Chinese economic and foreign policy initiative which seeks to create a ‘commonwealth’ along the old Silk Road that ran from China through Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Apart from bringing in additional Chinese government funding under the initiative, the research institute would be a 'heavy responsibility' for a pioneer Chinese university, but Wang said he could fulfil the task.

A number of China’s international higher education collaborations that have been underway for some time are being rebranded as part of China’s 'One Belt, One Road' initiative and universities are happy to do that because it means increased resources and funding for research and other work, including tackling global challenges.

"Internationalisation is an imperative in the educational reform; its goal is to train the younger generation to have the capability to solve problems of sustainable development. International cooperation with foreign institutions would have multiple contributions to that purpose," said Gong Ke, president of Nankai University, who said the university had cooperation and exchange relationships with 331 universities in 45 countries and regions.

Global problems such as climate change require global solutions, he said. "A sustainable world needs highly educated people all over the world. Universities, especially elite universities, should shoulder the duty to reduce the gap between developed and developing areas in education by every means," Gong Ke said.

Starting small

But establishing broader economic partnerships is a long-term perspective, according to Nottingham University’s Miles. Partnerships must start with smaller collaborations to build confidence between the two sides.

One of the first colleges established jointly by China and the UK, and based in the UK rather than China, is being set up in Cardiff in Wales as a collaboration between Cardiff University and Beijing Normal University.

It will offer a joint degree from the two universities after two years of study in the UK and two years in China. One of China’s aims is to increase the number of foreign students at Chinese universities and this type of programme will do that, with Cardiff hoping to attract students not just from the UK but from the rest of Europe as well.

At present the joint college in Cardiff will offer mainly Chinese studies with a focus on the language, “but we hope to build on it longer term”, said Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University. “It is an opportunity to work closely with a Chinese partner.”

“We are also looking at computer science as the next area that we would want to work on together,” Riordan said. “We have set up a software academy here; the idea is to train software engineers who from the very start will work with industry – it’s that kind of approach that we want to take international.”

Looking at opportunities to tie up with Chinese industries “is the obvious thing to do”, he said.

“It’s in the nature of universities to collaborate and cooperate,” Riordan said. “It is about the free exchange of ideas and we do this with partners all around the world.”