Understanding drivers of transnational partnerships

The increase in global partnerships between groups of higher education institutions is part of a fundamental change in the way universities are working together and constructing themselves.

Partnerships among the biggest emerging global political and economic powers are becoming particularly significant, with the so-called BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa making huge investments in elite groups of flagship institutions so that they can compete globally.

These developing international partnerships can provide a window through which to see and understand the complexities and contradictions in contemporary international higher education, and looking at China’s partnerships is particularly informative.

The past three decades has seen China carry out intensive reform of its higher education system, alongside staggering levels of investment in relatively small numbers of universities.

China’s 211 and 985 projects hothouse funded around 150 universities out of the total of 2,200 universities in China.

When we look at the partnerships established by China’s elite universities with the United Kingdom, it is no surprise to find that China’s C9 (their nine universities ranked highest) have mostly established links with UK institutions that are members of the elite UK Russell Group or ‘research-intensive’ universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and University College London.

However, international partnerships develop in historical, geographic, social and cultural contexts and an analysis of Chinese universities’ partnerships across different social, cultural and geopolitical contexts indicates that, even within the elite groups of universities in China, transnational partnerships are diverse and complex.

East vs West

China’s vast geography results in extreme variation in demographics, economy and social and cultural contexts and this is inevitably reflected in higher education. The densely populated, urbanised and industrialised Eastern coastal region has the lion’s share of higher education institutions, with the provinces of Beijing, Shandong and Jiangsu having the highest number of Chinese universities.

The more sparsely populated, rural and agricultural Western provinces such as Xinjiang, Qinghai and Ningxia have far fewer universities. This is not surprising in itself, given the extreme differences between Western and Eastern China.

Having said this, when we look at the geographical spread of the elite groups of Chinese universities, the unequal spread of elite higher education institutions is more acute than that of the non-elite institutions, with 60% and 72% respectively of the 211 and 985 group universities being in the East compared to 48% of the non-elite institutions.

This relationship between geographical concentrations of elite institutions in urbanised areas is accentuating the urban/rural or, to put it crudely, rich/poor divide in China, and this is reflected particularly strongly in the provision of elite higher education.

Practically, for Chinese students this means a socially differentiated access to higher education and an increasingly differentiated access to elite institutions. This will sound familiar in so many countries across the world, including in so-called developed nations such as the UK.

Socio-cultural ties

At the same time, when we take a closer look at how individual Chinese universities are developing, a more nuanced picture emerges, suggesting that even in the case of elite universities, ties with the local historical and socio-cultural context and community are continuing to influence higher education.

East China Normal University, or ECNU, is located in Shanghai on the coast of the urbanised wealthy East of the country. Shanghai has long been one of China’s major trading ports with the British, Americans and French establishing trading concession areas in Shanghai in the late 1840s, resulting in international settlements that were out of Chinese government control.

Shanghai could have developed in a similar way to Hong Kong, but instead became a multicultural Chinese city with a strong colonial atmosphere.

ECNU is the top ‘normal’ (education) university in China and is part of both the 985 and 211 projects. The concentration of ECNU’s partnerships reflects its city’s historical colonial past, and the university’s most developed and long-standing partnerships are with France, the US and Australia.

The most notable characteristic of ECNU’s partnerships, however, is the large numbers of research and teaching centres set up by international partners on or around ECNU’s campus in Shanghai. In 2006 ECNU opened an international education park that aimed to attract international universities to establish overseas campuses and teaching centres.

ECNU’s partnership strategy, influenced by its local historical and socio-cultural context, is to bring the world to Shanghai.

Not far to the south down the East coast of China is the city of Xiamen where Xiamen University or XMU, one of the 211 and 985 elite universities of China, was established in 1921. Its founder Tan Kah Kee was an overseas Chinese Malaysian entrepreneur and philanthropist of Southeast Asia, and XMU is the first Chinese higher educational institution established by an overseas Chinese.

The city is close to Taiwan and historically has been the site of conflict between China and Taiwan, although this is now a more peaceful relationship with the November 2015 historic meeting between the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then president Ma Ying-jeou.

XMU appears to face itself towards Asia, with the majority of its partnerships being in Asia (with 68 Asian partnerships compared to ECNU’s 43). XMU also has fewer links with America than ECNU. This reflects both its geographic position in the south-east of China, close to the borders of Southeast Asian countries, but also its demographics, being home to many overseas Chinese communities from Southeast Asia.

XMU is the first Chinese university to set up an international branch campus abroad, with its Malaysia branch opening in 2015. This is a landmark event in Chinese higher education policy and Xiamen University, with its history and position, is the perfect university to achieve this for China.

So the picture of globalising higher education is complex. While China still retains a strong catch-up mentality and aims for its elite institutions to partner with dominant, elite Western peers, local social and cultural factors will continue to have an impact on the development of partnerships and the ways in which universities develop.

While some characteristics of globalisation promote common trends across higher education, it also appears to be the case that local differentiation in higher education is continuing, influenced by a complex combination of geographical and sociocultural contexts.

Catherine Montgomery is professor of international higher education in the faculty of education at the University of Hull, UK. She is a specialist in international and comparative education with particular interest in international and transnational higher education in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.