China’s higher education megaproject

The announcement that Peking University will spend £9 million (US$11.7 million) on opening a business school in Oxford early next year has attracted a great deal of attention in the UK media as well as in education. It may be the fact that Peking has chosen the setting of Oxford for this new higher education venture that has begun to open people’s eyes to the developing influence of China.

There may be a sense that China is reaching into the heart of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious higher education institution and into what is quintessentially English. Ironically, many people have assumed that this enterprise is happening in partnership with the University of Oxford, but in fact this is not the case.

Peking is setting up this branch of the HSBC Business School in Foxcombe Hall, which was previously the site of one of the Open University’s regional centres, before it closed in 2015, evidence of the contrasting shrinking reach of some of England’s higher education.

The 19th century manor of Foxcombe Hall was also the home of the eighth earl of Berkeley and resembles the very stereotype of picture-postcard England. This image of England must have played a part in Peking’s choice of the site, which they purchased for around £8.8 million, reputedly beating off competition from other potential buyers, including an unnamed Oxford college, by making the vendors an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Record numbers of graduates

Despite this sudden media attention, China’s transnational higher education has been developing and establishing itself for a number of years and it is part of China’s higher education megaproject. China’s higher education system is expanding at an astonishing rate and 2017 will see eight million students graduate from Chinese higher education institutions, a record number which is more than twice the number graduating in the United States.

Alongside China’s vast investments in their elite higher education institutions they are also developing transnational higher education, both within and beyond China. Zhejiang University, one of China’s oldest and most prestigious universities has built and opened a new international campus in Haining, two hours away from their original campus which opened in 1897.

On this new 200-acre campus Zhejiang has established partnerships with key elite institutions from across the world, including the University of Edinburgh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Pennsylvania, which are opening joint research and teaching institutes and providing dual degree programmes.

International higher education is evolving and China is developing its own forms of transnational higher education within China and slowly but surely diverting the flows of internationally mobile students to its own international branch campuses at home.

Transnational expansion

Traditionally, transnational higher education has been on a one-way path with ‘Western’ institutions delivering their programmes in China, with a prominent example of this being the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo China campus. But China is also expanding its own transnational higher education provision abroad as well as at home, as the campus in Oxford has demonstrated.

In 2015 Xiamen University opened China’s first branch campus abroad in Malaysia. Phase one of this impressive high-quality campus was completed in April 2017 and student registrations on the campus have swelled from 200 students in 2016 to almost 2,000 in 2017.

Around a third of these students are from China and the rest are drawn from Malaysia, with many students joining Xiamen University Malaysia on full scholarships awarded on merit, demonstrating that China aims to attract the brightest and the best students to their high-quality campuses.

Targeting European students

So it is entirely plausible that Peking University’s new business school in Oxford will be the thin end of the wedge of the development of China’s transnational higher education abroad.

And it’s important to realise that China’s transnational campuses abroad are not just being aimed at Chinese students, but, as in the case of the Peking HSBC Business School in Oxford, the campus is being designed for European as well as Chinese students. A statement from the new Peking business school notes that China is "opening its higher education market to the world".

It appears, then, that higher education in the UK, Europe and China are now competing for the same sorts of students. China has introduced some recent policies that aim to make studying full degree programmes in China more attractive. These include providing additional scholarships for one-year language preparation courses, more programmes in English and easier access to the job market for international students.

China has a target of attracting 500,000 international students and they are well on the way to that, with 442,773 international students studying in China last year, an 11.4% rise. South Korea, Thailand and the US are all sending international students to study in China and perhaps some of these students would in the past have chosen the UK, Europe or the US.

Meanwhile back in the UK the number of incoming international students is stagnating according to figures of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, and this is against the backdrop of increasingly rigid visa regulations for international students coming to the UK and the public diplomacy disaster of Brexit.

Global reach

So where will this all lead? China still has challenges associated with the divide between its wealthy urban East and its poorer rural Western region. In addition to this, under-employment remains a challenge and, while they are educating millions of graduates, they are also developing technologies that may reduce employment in the long run, although it is still science and technology graduate careers that are holding up better than jobs associated with the so-called ‘soft skills’ professions.

Despite this, it is evident that China’s staggering investment in economic expansion beyond its borders through the One Belt, One Road initiative, for example, is being accompanied by the parallel strategic development of new forms of transnational higher education.

While the UK, Europe and the US are distracted by chaotic internal politics, China is quietly developing and expanding its global reach and influence and its higher education megaproject is a key strategic element of this.

Catherine Montgomery is professor of education at the University of Bath, United Kingdom.