Two-way internationalisation plan faces several roadblocks

Since the early 2000s, China has been moving into a new phase of internationalisation of higher education. It has launched more active and ambitious policies to boost its presence in the global higher education landscape and to strengthen its soft power.

In addition to accepting more inbound international students and building globally ranked universities and disciplines, China has also been trying to transform one-way transnational higher education – usually referred to as “Sino-foreign collaborative institutions and programmes” in China – to two-way transnational higher education under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative.

When transnational higher education emerged in the early 1990s, it meant the establishment of Sino-foreign joint venture colleges or schools and the provision of a part of foreign educational programmes on Chinese campuses in collaboration with overseas partner universities.

However, radical changes have occurred in the quantitative and qualitative aspects of China’s transnational higher education since then.

The number of both transnational institutions and programmes on Chinese campuses has expanded rapidly over the past two decades. For example, there were only two transnational institutions and programmes in China in 1995, but by 2001 there were 18 and by 2021 there were 154 institutions and 1,187 programmes.

Although no official statistics are available, it was reported by the media that the number of students enrolled in Chinese transnational higher education had reached approximately 600,000 in 2020.


This quick growth has led to the diversification of types and levels of transnational institutions and programmes. Compared to the early 1990s when a vast majority of them belonged to masters-level transnational institutions and programmes, junior colleges have begun to offer shorter programmes and 80% are provided at undergraduate level on Chinese campuses.

Moreover, more and more transnational vocational and technical programmes have been developed in collaboration with foreign partners.

What is more, China has attracted more research universities from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to work with Chinese universities to jointly build branch campuses and provide graduate programmes in China.

Examples include the masters programmes in management with an emphasis on technology and innovation jointly provided by Tsinghua University and the Australian National University, the doctor of business administration programme offered by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the University of Manchester, and the bachelor of science course offered by China Agricultural University and Cornell University.

Moreover, while in the early stages only domestic students in mainland China were allowed to apply for and study in both transnational institutions and programmes, many transnational institutions or branch campuses are now able to recruit foreign students from partner universities and even international students from other parts of the world.

For example, students from more than 70 countries have studied at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the first Sino-foreign university which was founded in 2004 in China. Also, New York University (NYU) Shanghai, China’s first-ever Sino-American joint-venture university, accommodated around 1,800 students who came from more than 70 countries in 2021.

And, while transnational institutions and programmes were concentrated in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai in the late 1990s, more local provinces and even some economically undeveloped areas have been involved in transnational higher education of late.

For example, in 2021, Jiangsu province established the largest number of Sino-foreign institutions (10) and programmes (119), while in Henan province, which is a typically economically undeveloped area, 115 transnational programmes were provided.

In contrast, there were only four transnational institutions and 33 programmes in Beijing.

During the COVID pandemic, some transnational institutions in China have assumed a new role: providing academic support to local students who had been admitted to foreign partner or foreign universities but could not go abroad due to border restrictions.

For example, at the request of overseas universities, NYU Shanghai accepted nearly 3,000 local Chinese students who could not study abroad as auditors.

Outbound internationalisation

More importantly, Chinese universities have been engaged in establishing overseas branches, international joint colleges and delivering degree and training programmes overseas in collaboration with foreign governments, universities and companies. For example, in July 2011, Soochow University established a branch campus in Laos. It provides a joint degree programme between universities in China and Laos, making it China’s first overseas university.

At present, the Lao Soochow University is functioning as planned. It has established faculties of international economics and trade, finance, Chinese language, and computer science and technology. Most of the students are recruited among local people. Students are required to study prescribed programmes in their first year which are formulated by both the Chinese university and the Laos government.

Students who meet the requirements of both the mother university, Soochow University in China, and Lao Soochow University can be awarded with two degrees – one from Soochow University and one from Lao Soochow University – which are recognised by the Ministry of Education in China and the Ministry of Education in Laos.

Supported by the Chinese government, more and more Chinese universities have made similar efforts to export higher education and strengthen their impact abroad.

Among them are the Xiamen University Malaysia branch campus, established in 2015; Tongji University Florence Campus (2014); the Global Innovation Exchange, a technology platform for the development of innovation and funding that was jointly built by Tsinghua University, the University of Washington and Microsoft Inc at Seattle in 2015; and Peking University London Campus in 2018.

Moreover, other Chinese universities like Beijing Language and Culture University, Shanghai University and Huaqiao University have also established branch campuses in East Asian countries, in Tokyo and Bangkok respectively.

As part of measures to respond to the Belt and Road Initiative, the goal of Xiamen University Malaysia is to recruit one third of its students from mainland China according to the standards demanded for Xiamen University in China, one third of its students from local people (whether overseas Chinese or local people) and one third from international students from other countries.

As of September 2021, the university has more than 6,000 students. Among them, approximately 2,200 students come from mainland China. The rest come from 33 countries and regions, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

There is little doubt that transnational higher education has become an increasingly important part of China’s higher education policy.

On the one hand, China has achieved both quantitative expansion and qualitative improvement of its transnational education at home. The range of what is offered is more diverse and flexible in terms of the body of students, the educational programmes offered and the types and levels of institutions and programmes.

Two-way system

On the other hand, China has endeavoured to change the one-way transnational higher education of the past into a two-way transnational system which aims to boost China’s higher education impact by exporting China’s ideas, standards and educational service abroad.

Its end goal is to realise the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”. At the institutional level, Chinese institutions overseas have two missions. On the one hand, they introduce and export the Chinese language and culture, history and traditional Chinese medicine. On the other hand, they produce graduates who are expected to promote an exchange of culture, trade and science and technology knowledge between China and host countries.

However, the number of institutions and programmes exported abroad are still smaller than the inbound ones. As more and more Chinese universities like Zhejiang and Fudan universities are making efforts to build their branch campuses and deliver programmes overseas, it is estimated that the number of outbound branch campuses and programmes of China will grow significantly in the near future.

Challenges to China’s ambitions

Nevertheless, China faces several challenges in promoting the development of transnational higher education and increasing its influence overseas. The number of students enrolled in transnational institutions and programmes in China is still small and only makes up a tiny share of the over 32 million students at the undergraduate level.

It is difficult to say that transnational higher education has had the significant impact on the massification of China’s higher education that the government expected when it was launched in the early 1990s.

The number of doctoral programmes offered by China’s transnational higher education policy is also very small compared to those offered at undergraduate level – only about seven doctoral degree programmes are delivered in China.

And although more leading universities from Australia, the UK and the US have worked with Chinese universities in more recent years, very few top universities from Europe and North America are undertaking collaboration with China’s universities when it comes to graduate programmes. A clear example is that there are no joint institutions or programmes yet established between Chinese universities and the universities of Harvard, Yale, Oxford and even Tokyo.

Another issue is quality. Despite the number of both private institutions and private student enrolments accounting for more than a quarter of the total institutions and students in China, very few private institutions are authorised to engage in China’s transnational higher education programme due to their poor quality.

Except for the University of Nottingham Ningbo China in which joint doctoral programmes are provided and doctoral degrees are only awarded by the University of Nottingham in the UK, there were no private universities working with foreign partners to provide graduate programmes, let alone doctoral degree programmes in 2020.

Then there is cost. Not surprisingly, some transnational institutions and programmes are far more expensive than local institutions and programmes. Even the cheapest tuition fees charged by inbound transnational institutions are four times more expensive than local institutions. Take NYU Shanghai: it charges tuition fees which are more than 10 times the cost of those charged by local universities.

Some universities like Tianjin University of Technology, Henan University of Technology, Jilin University of Finance and Economics and Heihe University have even violated national regulations and recruited far more students than the number of enrolments set by the government and have become diploma and degree mills.

Measures by Western countries

Finally, the aggressive export of China’s ideologies and ideas to other countries has caused Western countries such as Australia, the US, the UK and even Japan to take more severe measures to check and restrict the outflow of Sino-foreign collaborative institutions and programmes, particularly the branch campuses and programmes China’s universities are involved in.

For example, at least 45 American universities have terminated their academic cooperation plans with Confucius Institutes and have forbidden Chinese students and researchers from collaborating with US universities and research institutes in some “sensitive” disciplines such as defence following former US president Donald Trump’s policy of restricting Sino-American exchange of education, culture and science and technology, which was followed by the Japanese government in 2020.

Moreover, the ongoing struggles over Fudan University’s campus in Hungary show the political sensitivities at the heart of China’s transnational higher education plans.

This will inevitably affect the realisation of China’s objectives and plans to achieve two-way transnational higher education and boost its research on the international stage.

Futao Huang is a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan. E-mail: