The rapidly changing focus of corporate universities

Compared to the United States, where corporate universities emerged as early as the 1960s, the history of China’s corporate universities is much shorter: it is said that the first corporate universities only came into existence in 2002.

According to Chinese media reports, it is estimated that approximately 2,000 corporate universities have been established in China since the beginning of the 21st century.

Due to the lack of precise national data and publicly available information, it is impossible to know exactly who founded these corporate universities, how they are operated and even how many of them still function. However, it is clear that there have been some changes in this area in recent years, with more to come.

Among the latest developments, the most notable change is that there has been a shift in the ‘students’ who study at newly founded corporate universities, from elite business leaders or CEOs from big companies to regular employees and blue-collar workers from diverse backgrounds.

For example, when Hupan University was founded in 2015, it announced that it would only accommodate about 50 successful business leaders a year regardless of how many applicants it received. Among the first new students were well-known figures such as Yu Kai, CEO of AI chipmaker Horizon Robotics; Dai Kun, founder of Nasdaq-listed used car platform Uxin; and Zhu Zhaojiang, founder of Transsion, one of the largest smartphone sellers in Africa.

Meanwhile, the goal of Meituan University, which was set up in 2019, is to provide study opportunities to about 100 million employees or practitioners involved in life services, such as catering, food delivery, beauty, recreation, fitness and hotel management over the next 10 years.

As of 2019, the data shows that, among those who received training programmes delivered by the Meituan company and its new university, more than 40% were educated at junior colleges and-or have bachelor degrees, while the remainder are workers, delivery men or salesmen without any academic degree.

A new ethos

The establishment of Meituan University marks a transformation in the mission and objectives of corporate universities. For example, the main objectives of Hupan University are forming powerful business networks in the country, discovering and producing Chinese business leaders with a spirit of entrepreneurship as well as enhancing their capacity for sustainably developing their business.

Despite differences of degree, GASA University, established in 2016 by several well-known business leaders and scholars in China and abroad, also aims to provide higher learning to elite business leaders in China. Its mission is to pursue a scientific renaissance, focusing on communicating scientific truths, exploring human development and seeking to balance innovation, science, technology and business.

In contrast, Meituan University aims to give 100 million people the digitalised knowledge and skills they need and to provide more employment opportunities for people that are geared towards 21st century jobs.

When it comes to tuition fees, there is no information available publicly, but, according to the executive president of Meituan University, 80% of its training courses are free and only some high-level courses geared towards specific groups of people attract high fees.

In contrast, the data shows that the total amount of fees charged for three years at Hupan University is nearly US$40,000 and the fee charged for only one term at GASA University is approximately US$100,000.

The reasons for this are partly that Meituan University is primarily catering to millions of employees and practitioners at their work, satisfies their demands for further technical and vocational education and training and is aimed at improving their employability, and partly that it offers a large number of online courses to its students.

Curriculum differences

Evident differences in teaching content or courses also exist between earlier corporate universities and Meituan University.

For example, according to the official website of Hupan University, it strongly insists on the implementation of ongoing education, stressing that its programmes are for “lifelong learning with no specific graduation date”. Its teachings have a focus on overcoming hardship as a way to seize the future. It has developed a wide variety of courses ranging from corporate culture, technology and production and financial management to history and art classes.

Qingteng University was set up in 2015 and provides a diverse range of courses in its three colleges relating to literature, science and technology, and business.

As for GASA University, its teaching content is made up of four clusters: information science, life science, liberal arts and localisation and material science.

By contrast, Meituan University concentrates on the provision of new knowledge and skills required for workers doing jobs on site as well as lifelong learning programmes. It devotes more time and effort to the combination of teaching, training and practice.

Finally, as noted above, earlier corporate universities such as Hupan University, Qingteng University and GASA University basically cater for a very limited group of students coming from specific fields, especially from business.

Generally, these universities are not open to the public, let alone blue-collar employees or practitioners. They deliberately steer away from the majority of society and are more engaged in building and expanding their own business networks from a commercial and business perspective.

As a new university, Meituan University is making an effort to collaborate more closely with government, professional associations, officially approved colleges of higher technical and vocational education and even prestigious universities to establish a new form of partnership between vocational education, training and business.

Its executive president claimed that of more than 1,400 teachers, approximately 800 come from technical and vocational education backgrounds or from their business partnerships.

There is little doubt that these corporate universities are also facing lots of challenges. Typical issues include that they are not officially accredited or approved by any government or local authority and are not considered as part of formal education; that many of them do not provide a systematic or coherent curriculum and are based solely on their founders’ philosophy or ideas; and that some of them charge incredibly high tuition fees and are therefore not accessible by a mass of students.

Finally, it is unclear what the future holds for these corporate universities as their operation is not influenced by any public regulatory or monitoring agencies or organisations.

The changing idea of a university

Apparently, the idea of a university has changed considerably and been imbued with new meaning even in China. Although driven by various factors, the rise of corporate universities in China suggests that business leaders and businesses feel it important and necessary to create their own universities and run education and lifelong learning courses if they want to improve their competitiveness in the market, develop sustainably and influence society for the better.

To a large degree, their participation in running universities seems to be not only driven by a commercial or for profit purpose, but also to aim to communicate new knowledge and competencies.

Surprisingly, within a very short time, the rapid changes which have occurred in China’s corporate universities have given rise to diverse types of corporate institutions. There has been an apparent shift from a focus on serving elite business leaders to being responsive and relevant to the growing and diverse needs of the labour market, especially those working in life services.

More importantly, these new types of universities appear to be playing and will play a significant role in addressing China’s employment problems and contribute to the further diversification of China’s education and training systems and even to the advancement of Chinese society generally.

Professor Futao Huang is based at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan, and is also co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research programme.