Ministry ends hundreds of Sino-foreign HE partnerships

China’s official media is fond of publicising the hundreds of collaboration agreements and memorandums of understanding signed with foreign universities in recent years, but not all come to fruition and many that do turn out to be unsustainable or of low quality.

More than a fifth of courses established by Sino-foreign partnerships since 1994 have been terminated, according to China’s education ministry, when it issued a new list of terminations last week.

The ministry in its notice of 4 July says it terminated 234 partnerships between Chinese and foreign institutions, including five jointly managed institutions, without mentioning when the terminations occurred.

The largest number of shutdowns were joint courses with United Kingdom institutions – about 60 on the list, then Australia with 45. About two dozen United States joint courses have been shuttered.

Mike Gow, visiting fellow at Nottingham University’s Asia Research Institute and an expert in China’s higher education, noted that almost 30% of 149 Australian joint programmes and 25% of the 245 UK joint programmes opened since 1994 have now been terminated. Some had only operated for four to five years.

“This is a worryingly high level of failure of transnational education given the amount of money ploughed into these partnerships,” Gow said.

Source of graph: Mike Gow, July 2018

“This is a cumulative list which includes a lot of programmes that have already been cancelled,” Gow noted, adding that a large number had been shut down before the official expiry date of their licence “and the overwhelming majority have not been renewed which indicates a quality issue”.

Academics in Southern China said Communist Party officials have been visiting foreign partnership institutions since last year in what are called “fact finding missions”, often seen as part of the drive to assert government and party control over Sino-foreign higher education ventures, in line with the tightening of ideological control of Chinese higher education institutions in general.

Among the five fully-fledged joint institutes on the termination list were the International ‘College of Excellence’ of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, a leading economics university; a joint masters degree in dentistry run by Peking University and the University of Hong Kong, also in Beijing; the Sino-German College of Shanxi Agricultural University; and the Xi’an Jiaotong-Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Joint School of Sustainable Development in Xi’an, launched with much fanfare in 2012 as a key higher education centre for China’s flagship ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.

The ministry says the terminations were aimed at “improving quality and efficiency” of joint institutions and programmes.” It noted that rapid expansion of joint programmes has led in some cases to insufficiently high quality educational resources, low teaching quality, weak professional competence, among other issues, and had led to low student satisfaction and difficulties in attracting students.

Although there were different reasons for the revoking of licences, “the common point is that they cannot fully meet the requirements of high quality education and teaching,” according to a commentary on the ministry website by Wang Qi Cai, associate professor at the School of Philosophy and Law, Shanghai Normal University.

Many of the affected institutions and programmes had failed to demonstrate any comparative advantage over local programmes, while some of the disciplines “do not meet the current economic and social development needs”, the commentary said.

Gow pointed out that of the shuttered joint programmes, 100 are in Heilongjiang province close to the Russian border and 100 involved UK and Russian institutions. “There was no foreign faculty or staff, no resources from overseas, it was just a way of recruiting students,” he told University World News.

The ministry periodically releases lists of subjects linked to low employment prospects for graduates and curtails the number of new courses in those disciplines. This led to a cull of joint Sino-foreign courses after 2011.

‘Orderly exit’

The ministry noted that some institutions themselves wished to end certain joint programmes and legal termination allows for an “orderly exit”, particularly if partners want to set up other partnerships with different institutions.

These included some sports management and other sports-related courses in collaboration with universities in Australia, set up around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, some of which were collaborations over a 10-year period which have now come to an end, and which the Chinese and foreign partners did not want to renew.

In effect, many of the courses on the latest ministry list had already been stopped and had not taken on new students. “The basic principle of implementing the existing mechanism is to respect the wishes of the institution and protect the rights and interests of students,” according to the commentary.

“The five institutions and 229 projects that have withdrawn from Sino-foreign cooperative education” have done so “after careful consultation to confirm there is no willingness to continue teaching, that the cooperative agreement has been fulfilled, that the institution has actually stopped running, and that there are no students, the institution and education administration departments were terminated and the termination procedures were officially initiated”, according to the ministry.

Some top institutions

Around 30 of the approvals revoked under this latest list were for institutions and programmes in Beijing and 27 in Shanghai, including at top institutions such as Fudan University, Shanghai, putting paid to the view that it was only programmes in outlying provinces that had difficulty in attracting quality staff and students.

According to official figures, as of June 2018 there were 2,342 Chinese-foreign institutions and projects established since 2003, when they were first allowed, including 1,090 at the undergraduate level. Some 70 are joint institutes.

The last time Beijing announced a significant crackdown on Sino-foreign joint projects was in 2014 when 246 programmes had their approval revoked over a concern over quality. It included the ending of 68 partnerships with Australian institutions, 36 partnerships with Canadian institutions and 29 with United Kingdom-based institutions.

In 2015 Beijing launched a new scheme backed by huge financial resources to allow universities to aim for world-class status in particular subject areas as an extension of its previous ‘world-class universities’ initiatives which concentrated on elite institutions.

Universities in the provinces were able to tap the fund to set up international collaborations in a bid to strengthen their performance in certain disciplines, leading to a raft of Sino-foreign approvals by the ministry.

However, new approvals of joint projects with foreign institutions have slowed significantly in the past year, after the ministry issued a ‘five-point plan’ with more stringent guidelines for developing Sino-foreign collaborations in early 2017.

In its update in April this year of newly approved joint institutions and programmes, the ministry lists only two new undergraduate joint programmes, seven postgraduate joint programmes and four joint institutions since September 2017. The 13 approvals contrast with over 30 approvals the same time last year.

The new joint institutes are in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shaanxi and Heilongjiang provinces with partners from France, Australia and Russia. Newly approved joint courses were with institutions in Germany, France, Ireland, the US, Singapore, as well as the UK, Australia and Canada.

“In the current ideological climate it looks like approvals have been put on hold while the state reassesses the role of higher education, including all Sino-foreign partnerships, in relation to Xi Jinping’s New Era and other state projects,” said Gow, referring to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as it is officially known.