French institutions push into China, boost business

French higher education’s presence in China, including branch campuses, has lagged behind the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. However, with the backing of the French government interested in boosting French companies abroad, a flurry of collaborations, particularly by business schools, has been evident this year.

France’s Kedge Business School renewed its partnership with Renmin University of China, teaching business degrees in Suzhou, in Jiangsu province on China’s East Coast. The joint venture that began in 2011 will continue for another five years, Kedge has announced.

Kedge is also stepping up its collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University to launch new business degrees in cultural and creative industries .

Fontainebleau-based INSEAD, which has a branch campus in Singapore, set up the Tsinghua-INSEAD dual degree Executive MBA with the Chinese university in Beijing almost a decade ago.

ESSEC – Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Comerciales – has double-degree programmes with Tongji University in Shanghai and Guanghua School of Management at Peking University.

Others such as Audencia Business School with campuses in Nantes and Paris have also taught dual degrees in China. It is taking a step further with a new joint-venture campus with Shenzhen University in southern Guangdong province known as Shenzhen Audencia Business School or SABS, with its first students arriving in September 2017.

Another well known French business school, EMLyon, this year opened a joint-venture campus in Shanghai with East China Normal University called Asia-Europe Business School. The elite Institut d'études politiques de Paris, popularly known as Sciences Po, is also about to set up its own business school in China.

“It’s not that we are not present here in China – we are [present], but we need to be more agile, flexible vis-à-vis international competition,” France’s consul-general in Shanghai, Axel Cruau, told journalists. French universities and business schools “can open doors for our corporations and can also work with non-French partners”, he said.

Previously known mainly for designer fashion brands, perfumes, wine and art galleries and museums, the French government is rallying its business schools and universities around networks known as French Tech Hubs. There are some 22 of these around the world including in Berlin and Los Angeles but three are in China – Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai – and one in Hong Kong.

These clusters of start-ups, bigger companies and other organisations showcase French know-how in China, make approaches to the Chinese government, and help companies adapt to the Chinese market.

Business schools and universities are a natural addition and give French institutions a new purpose and visibility in China. “There are 100 start-ups taking part in French Tech and the number is increasing,” says Javier Gimeno, president of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China.

Government pressure

There has been pressure from the French government to catch up with US, UK and Australian institutions’ greater presence in China, outlined in a report on French transnational higher education published in September by the government-backed think tank France Stratégie.

French institutions have some 600 programmes overseas, including 40 international branch campuses and 30 joint ventures with the most popular countries being Morocco, Vietnam and China. French business schools teach some 3,000 students outside France, the report said, but lack of vision means institutions are behind their British, American and Australian counterparts.

French business schools in particular are strong but are typically too small or less well-known abroad compared to British and American institutions.

“Most of the business schools in France were created by chambers of commerce. They are very strong entities getting funding directly from taxes on companies and playing a very important role in creating special infrastructure like ports and airports. But the French economy is no longer booming so business schools have to go abroad to find students,” said Thomas Froehlicher, director-general of France’s Kedge Business School, which has four campuses in France as well as branches in Shanghai and Suzhou and a campus in Dakar, Senegal.

Its programmes in China are taught in English as well as providing French language instruction and joint degrees that require students to spend time in France.

“We have finally understood that we have to promote ourselves in the world. And we have to promote ourselves in English. It is impossible to attract an Indian, Chinese, African and a Russian with a programme [delivered] in French,” said Froehlicher.

Sino-French institutes

French institutions have in the past formed consortia known as Sino-French Institutes or IFCs to link up with Chinese universities. “French universities are very small. If they want to develop partnerships with good universities in China they have to form a consortium. US universities do not need that,” says Jean-François Vergnaud, French director of the IFC at Renmin University in Suzhou.

The consortia offer multidisciplinary teaching and research, and have good connections with French multinationals and banks. Kedge says it has links with some 30 companies within China.

In the past, IFCs – seven have been set up – were mainly in the fields of engineering, aeronautics and energy technology and included a preparatory year of French language learning, a year or more spent in France and delivery of a double degree. But they also provide links to French business and have the backing of French diplomats, which the Chinese side appreciates.

“When we negotiate with the Chinese it is not a negotiation between a French and a Chinese institution but a negotiation between France and China,” says Vergnaud.

The earlier IFCs received funding from the French state. École Centrale de Pékin, was established in Beijing in 2005 by a group of France’s leading engineering schools including the prestigious École Centrale Paris, together with China’s Beihang University.

“École Centrale Pékin was created when there was a lot of money available in France for international aid. China particularly benefited from French funds,” says Vergnaud.

An IFC set up in 2007 between the Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin, and a consortium of French aeronautics institutions included links with France’s Airbus industries, and also included a huge investment by the French state.

“The partnership was a big success but we cannot imagine the French state investing at this level any longer. We had to find another model, which was more balanced economically [between France and China],” Vergnaud says. French institutions went for high profile Chinese universities to set up joint programmes to appeal to Chinese students willing to pay more for an international programme.

IFCs branch out

The IFCs have been evolving and branching out. The Suzhou IFC, which includes Paul Valéry University, Montpellier III, Paris-Sorbonne University and Kedge in collaboration with Renmin University of China, is the first with the Chinese in science, humanities and social sciences.

“There was a desire from the start to educate Chinese students not just in the technological field but in French culture,” says Vergnaud. “We now teach a specialism in philosophy with Paris-Sorbonne University.”

The French view is that collaborating closely with Chinese partners provides stability and increases French universities’ profile within China. “We ourselves are very modest, but we are very ambitious in the partners that we choose,” says Guy Marcillat, vice president for international development and strategy at Kedge Business School.

This is different from the unitary branch campus model in China where the foreign partner mainly delivers their own degree. “For us the Chinese partners play a reassuring role,” says Vergnaud.

He insists the French institutions’ autonomy and freedom are not hampered. “We are under strict [Chinese] regulatory controls and have regular inspections [from the Chinese] to ensure our budget is balanced, but we are not prisoners. We are free to act.”

“We are also free to teach. We welcome a lot of French students here and we don’t tell them what they can say and what they can’t say, and until now it has not been a problem,” he says, but adds “I can’t say it will never be a problem.”

Likewise Chinese students have to prepare to go to France as a compulsory part of the course. “When Chinese students are in France they are not in a Chinese ghetto,” he says. “They are free to express themselves.”

Double degree

The IFC is the French institutions’ ticket to some of the best Chinese students drawn to top Chinese universities like Renmin. The IFC gives them an option of an international programme that delivers a double degree.

“American and British universities are competing with each other [in China] because they do not have a double degree,” Vergnaud says.

The IFC has some 1,200 students compared to a total of 80,000 students in the Suzhou university zone which includes the prestigious Soochow University as well as Australia’s Monash University and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

Vergnaud acknowledges France still plays a very small part in international higher education there. “But we have by far the best students in terms of quality,” he says and notes that this has helped increase the prestige of French programmes.

And there is another selling point: “Some of the big banks need people with three languages, French, English and Chinese,” says Shi Jiayou deputy dean of Renmin University in Suzhou.

For example, China Construction Bank has development projects in francophone Africa. “Some parents already envisage such a career path for their children. They are heads of enterprises which already have contact with Africa so they know it well,” Shi says.

He adds that China’s approach is to diversify its partnerships in higher education away from the US and UK.


Not everyone goes the IFC route. Shenzhen University last year approached Audencia Business School to set up the Shenzhen Audencia Business School or SABS, inaugurated this September. The first 200 students are due to start in September 2017, with 500 expected the year after.

Audencia teaches business courses in English elsewhere in China such as in Chengdu University but this is the first time it will lead a joint venture institution.

SABS dean, Christophe Germain, told University World News that Shenzhen University was primarily interested in the French business school’s accreditation. “We bring into the partnership the degrees, international recognition, management and leadership while Shenzhen contributes the campus and infrastructure,” he said. “We have a common challenge, we both want to develop the international side of Shenzhen University.”

Apart from the standard BBA and MBA and masters, they hope to jointly develop other programmes related to Shenzhen’s growing businesses that include big data, finance, e-commerce, supply chain, logistics and others. “Shenzhen’s economic environment is very dynamic – it is China’s Silicon Valley,” Germain said.

“China is transforming its economic model moving towards quality, performance and technology and they are looking for partners,” says the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Gimeno. "Services are growing and becoming the principal [economic area] so they are looking for young graduate experts on digital and marketing to accelerate this change.”

And there is another selling point for French higher education as Britain pulls out of the European Union.

France’s ambassador to China, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, spoke at the French Open Day at the Antai College of Economics and Management – the business school of Shanghai Jiao Tong University which is a collaboration with France’s ESSEC.

Speaking on 30 November at the event intended to showcase opportunities for Chinese graduates at French companies, Gourdault-Montagne referred to Brexit. Europe was evolving but France was “the formidable entry port to the European market”, he said.

As Gimeno says, “you cannot be timid in China".