Dutch branch campus shelved over academic freedom fears

The University of Groningen in the Netherlands has shelved plans to establish a branch campus in China, a joint venture with China Agricultural University, Beijing, after concerns were raised over academic freedom.

The university said it was reconsidering its plans for the University of Groningen Yantai in Shandong province, where China Agricultural University already has a branch, due to “insufficient support within the university council”, according to a university statement issued on 29 January.

“The board of the University of Groningen [UG] has decided not to submit its proposal to offer transnational education in Yantai to the [Netherlands] Minister of Education, Culture and Science,” Sibrand Poppema, the president of the university’s governing board, said in last Monday’s statement.

“This means that the board of the university will cancel its plans to offer entire degree programmes under the responsibility of the UG in Yantai. In the near future we will investigate, together with the faculties and degree programmes, which other forms of collaboration are possible in Yantai,” Poppema said.

The China campus was to offer four Groningen University bachelor degrees and two masters degrees from September this year, with the main campus buildings in Yantai scheduled to be completed by June this year.

“From now on, no more investments can be made in this project,” said Henk-Jan Wondergem, leader of Lijst Calimero, a political faction within the UG council, which overall represents 30,000 students and staff.

Concerns over academic freedom

The Groningen university council, made up of 12 democratically elected university staff and an equal number of elected students, made it clear last August it would not approve the project because of academic freedom concerns. Some students and staff also objected to the ‘multinationalisation’ of the university, and concerns about the quality of education in Groningen if staff travel to China.

According to one university source, the presence of students on the university council, having such a strong say on the project, had also caught the attention of the Communist Party of China, with a prevalent view that a similar structure should not be allowed in Yantai, nor the student view be allowed to prevail.

The UG board’s proposals were redrafted after rules on the instatement of Communist Party officials at foreign branch campuses in China emerged. The UG council particularly sought guarantees that scientists would be able to research what they wanted and publish their findings without political interference.

In November, Poppema confirmed that a Communist Party secretary would sit on the board of the University of Groningen Yantai, but said this would not influence academic freedom at the university.

Rather, the Yantai campus would function like the University of Nottingham Ningbo China and New York University Shanghai with a Communist Party secretary on the board, but the party official would not have a say on course content, research and training. “That is the function of the [university] vice-president and that would be someone from Groningen,” he said.

He nonetheless admitted that self-censorship might be an issue.

A university statement at the time said: “Chinese legislation states that the government may not interfere with the content of programmes taught at foreign institutes. The vice-chancellor of the board of the university of Yantai will be responsible for the education programmes. This official will by definition be Dutch, as stipulated in the agreements with the Chinese government.

“The University of Groningen has always considered academic freedom a non-negotiable condition for founding the University of Groningen Yantai. The agreements about academic freedom, unrestricted access to the internet and the governance structure have been set out in the memorandum of understanding between the two universities,” the statement said.

Ministry position

Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven, who must approve the UG plan, is also concerned about academic freedom and indicated that the agreement of the university council was a precondition for her approval.

“In view of the importance I attach to academic freedom, I will not deal lightly with this when assessing an application,” she told Dutch TV in an interview aired on 11 January.

In early January, Van Engelshoven told a parliamentary committee it was “worrying” that the university would have to appoint a Party secretary on its China campus and said she wanted to see how the university would implement measures to guarantee academic freedom.

A Dutch legislative amendment is required before higher education institutions in the country can provide education abroad. The amendment was voted through by the Dutch House of Representatives by a large majority last year, but the legislative process, including approval by the Dutch Senate, is only expected to be completed by June and includes the approval of the education minister.

Financial losses

According to UG, preparations for the Yantai campus are “already in full swing”. This is “to allow for swift action after a positive decision in the Netherlands”, it explained, referring to the legislative process.

Recent reports suggest the skeleton structure of the library building has already been completed, with most of the campus due to be completed by June this year.

The university’s own accounts show €750,000 (US$933,000) in 2015 and €850,000 in 2016 were spent on the project. Figures for 2017 have not yet been released, but estimates put the total at around €3 million for the three years.

Groningen’s backtracking could mean huge losses for the city of Yantai, which is covering the costs of the construction and equipment for the campus teaching and research facilities. According to the agreement with Groningen, Yantai city is also responsible for any budget deficits.

It will also be an embarrassment for China. UG signed the agreement to cooperate with China Agricultural University in March 2015 at a ceremony attended by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The agreement to establish the University of Groningen Yantai was signed in October 2015 in the presence of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Chinese President Xi Jinping.