Breathtaking scale of higher education internationalisation

We wrote last year that China was on a fast track to internationalisation of education. Although the term ‘internationalisation of education’ – in Chinese Pin Yin: jiao yu guo ji hua – was first officially used in government documentation in 2010 as part of the National Medium- and Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan 2010-20, the nature of this fast track is becoming clear and is based on an innovation-driven development strategy, as determined by China’s recent 2016 National Conference on Innovation and Science/Technology.

There are eight important lines of development to consider.

The first, and possibly most enabling, is strong government support for further opening up of Chinese higher education. Following on from the ‘211’ and ‘985’ world-class university projects, 2015 saw the launching of the Double World Class Project – in Chinese Pin Yin: shuang yi liu ji hua – that includes creating hubs for international cooperation.

This is in the context of a diversified and large-scale international exchange involving some 200 countries, 160 bilateral and multilateral government agreements in education, 80 government-to-government cooperative programmes and interaction with some 30 international organisations, including UNESCO.

The substantial growth in international contact is paired with unprecedented increases in the gross enrolment rate, with a prediction of 40% participation of university-aged people by 2020.

The second line is that international student mobility, both inward (almost 400,000 in 2015) and outbound (more than 523,000 in 2015) continues to rise. That mobility has also played a role in the acceleration of credit transfer, degree recognition and joint programmes as well as short-term student exchange programmes.

This is no doubt further aided by the third line of development, namely that of increased bi-directional staff mobility and enhanced international research collaboration.

China is actively recruiting Chinese nationals who have received an education abroad. It has strengthened its endeavours to hire foreign academics to teach, conduct research or to act as dean or chair for the short or long term.

One Belt, One Road

The fourth line is the development of a new initiative called 'One Belt, One Road'.

Initially based on the Silk Road and the countries along its path from China to Europe, it later expanded with a second westward movement via the sea that includes countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, Greece and Italy, to mention a few.

This initiative sees more specific student and staff exchange with 'One Belt, One Road' countries as well as joint education programmes.

The fifth development constitutes a steady increase in Sino-foreign cooperative education programmes or institutions that now reaches a record number of more than 2,000. They include non-independent institutions (200) and programmes (1,800), as well as eight independent universities.

These Sino-foreign cooperative education programmes or institutions require the specific approval of the Chinese authorities. In addition, there are around 300 international primary and secondary schools approved by the Chinese authorities with about 150,000 students of foreign nationalities.

Confucius institutes and the Chinese narrative

China’s education is also expanding overseas and has new developments in store – the sixth line of development.

At the end of 2015 there were nearly 500 Confucius institutes and up to 1,000 Confucius classrooms in 134 countries. Chinese universities are now encouraged to further promote programmes abroad and overseas campuses.

A seventh line of development is a shift from scale to quality and from competition to cooperation.

Central and local governments will play an important role in launching new programmes and supporting their implementation. Higher education institutions will be enabled to focus specifically on their own strategies in terms of teaching and research.

Lastly, there will be more involvement of China in the international education community through the expansion of cooperation with international organisations, involvement and engagement in international education governance, dialogue, people-to-people exchange at all levels, training for critical languages, regional and national study centres and promulgation of more of the ‘Chinese narrative’.

Breathtaking scale

The scale of all these activities is breathtaking, but important questions have to be addressed.

Does China possess the required competencies to accomplish the missions ahead? To what extent is it prepared for such involvement in the global community of education?

A careful dissection of what is needed to make the mission a success will be required, as well as enlightened leadership to allow the power of innovation to be unleashed from one of the world’s largest education systems.

Dr Robert Coelen is professor of internationalisation of higher education at Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Dr Jiang Bo is vice-president at Tongji University in China.