Arab-Chinese HE cooperation on the rise

The opening of the first Confucius Institute in Tunisia this year is the latest expression of China’s ongoing bid to expand its influence in higher education in Arab countries of the North African region.

The average annual growth rate of Arab students studying in Chinese universities and Chinese students at Arab universities has increased by 26% and 21% respectively in the 12 years from 2004 to 2016, according to a recent report produced by the Middle East Studies Institute (MESI) in cooperation with Shanghai International Studies University and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum research centre.

Plans for the latest Tunisian institute, the primary purpose of which is to teach Mandarin, were unveiled by Salim Khalbous, Tunisia's minister of higher education and scientific research. It will be based in the Higher Institute of Languages in Tunis, affiliated to the University of Carthage.

The institute will be the 13th in the Arab world as China has established 12 Confucius Institutes and four Confucius Classrooms in nine Arab states including Egypt and Morocco, according to the MESI report.

The new institute follows the establishment in April of the China-Arab States BeiDou Center in Tunisia to train satellite navigation scientists and develop digital economy in Arab countries.

China is also building the Mohammed VI Tangier Tech in Morocco - a smart city to be built on a 200-hectare site over the next 10 years – and the US$45 million Egyptian satellite “EgyptSat2” for remote sensing with the reported aim of transferring Chinese technology and expertise in satellite manufacturing and operation to Egypt to serve research and remote sensing projects.

In addition to 10 joint national laboratories in areas such as new energy, public health, modern agriculture and telecommunications, the MESI report said China will set up training centres for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and clean energy along with technology transfer centres in areas of common interest.

Arab policy

China's 2016 Arab Policy Paper, proposed the establishment of China-Jordan University which will be similar to the Egyptian Chinese University – a joint venture between Liaoning University in Northeast China and the Cairo office of the Institute of International Education, which is an independent non-profit organisation that seeks to advance international education.

According to Gao Jie, assistant professor in the department of political science at the National University of Singapore, the projects are “part of China’s effort in promoting globalisation in higher education” .

"Chinese leaders have been striving to develop world-class universities in the past two decades, and internationalisation of faculty and students are an important component of that goal," Jie said. "Except Arab students, the number of students from other countries should be rising as well."

"The challenge might be whether Arab countries would take this as a challenge to their own culture and education, or an opportunity to develop together," Jie said.

Jacqueline Armijo, associate professor of the humanities at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, told University World News that China’s strategic decision to promote educational exchange projects, as well as develop university partnerships and research initiatives with different Arab countries “reflects both long-term goals and the immediate need for young people who are not only familiar with both cultures and languages, but also have the technical training needed".

US as a ‘difficult destination’

She said at a time when the US has become an increasingly difficult destination for higher education, China was in “an excellent position to attract many of the best and the brightest students from around the world".

"On the one hand, these initiatives incorporate China’s soft-power goal of extending its influence across Asia and the Middle East. On the other hand, China has been able to identify areas of research of primary and strategic importance to other countries, and provided scholarships for students to attend relevant degree programmes in China, together with funding for joint research projects," Armijo said.

"Across China, Arabic language classes have become increasingly popular; in addition, increasing numbers of students from a range of Arab countries are studying at different universities in China.

"Some of the funding is part of China’s national initiatives, but in some cases individual provinces are funding foreign students. For example, in 2016 Gansu Province in northwest China established an annual budget of CNY5 million (US$730,600) to fund foreign students from One Belt One Road project countries.”