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Chinese Universities, Coming to a Neighborhood Near You
Ventures in Seattle — and Laos, and Malaysia — are all part of a new soft-power push.
In an architect’s rendering of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) in Seattle, imaginary students in light-filled rooms huddle over computers or chat in clusters, presumably discussing solutions to global challenges like sustainable development and mobile health. GIX, a graduate institute jointly run by the University of Washington and prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, will start receiving applications this fall for the first class of students for a dual master’s degree program to begin on its campus in 2017. The first on-the-ground project of a Chinese university in the United States, the program aspires to educate “the next generation of innovators” through “project-based learning.” It also represents a growing trend of globalization in Chinese higher education. But as Chinese universities pursue more collaborations and campuses abroad, early indications suggest that the architectural renderings are often more ambitious than the outcomes, and attracting students may prove harder than hoped.
While foreign schools including New York University, Duke University, and the University of Nottingham have swarmed into China over the past two decades to establish campuses, Chinese universities have had a limited presence overseas. That may soon change as China’s leadership embarks on a campaign to increase its education-driven soft power, including establishing a campus of Xiamen University in Malaysia and an outpost of Soochow University in Laos. The question is whether non-Chinese students will find the latter appealing.
China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?
It’s clear enough why China’s government is keen on the shift. Leadership in higher education has historically characterized major global powers, from Great Britain in the early 19th century to the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Yet in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2015-16, Peking University and Tsinghua University, both hyper-selective schools in Beijing, were the only two Chinese universities among the top 100, ranking 42nd and 47th respectively. That’s limited China’s ability to expose foreign students to Chinese culture and ideas.
It’s not for lack of trying. In a 1998 speech at Peking University, arguably China’s flagship school, then-president Jiang Zemin announced a project to catapult Chinese universities into the upper echelons of international higher education by investing heavily in select universities. In a May 2014 speech at Peking University, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated the goal of building “world-class colleges and universities.” It’s a call that China’s propaganda outlets seem to have picked up. In February, a headline in state-run English paper China Daily announced, “Overseas campuses lead the charge in soft power push.” A sense of rivalry with Western universities may also partially motivate this push. Kevin Kinser, a professor of Education at Penn State, said that there is a sense in China that, “if this is something that Western countries are doing, then it’s certainly something that China should be competing to do as well.”
As of December 2015, China’s Ministry of Education reported a total of 98 Chinese programs and four Chinese institutions operating overseas. It’s unclear how much of an uptick this represents from prior periods, but in March 2016, the president of the Chinese Society of Education, the nation’s largest academic group for education, said, “the pace of ‘going out’ [for universities] has clearly accelerated.” These international projects differ in size and structure. In addition to the campuses in Malaysia and Laos, other initiatives include a collaboration in London on applied data science between Zhejiang University and Imperial College London, a branch campus of Beijing Language and Culture University in Tokyo, a “Sino-Italian campus” operated by Tongji University in Florence, and perhaps most prominently, GIX in Seattle.
GIX may be better positioned than most initiatives to attract students, given its specific focus on technology and a number of Chinese already interested in studying at the University of Washington (there were 3,616 enrolled in 2014). Courses and projects at GIX will draw on both Tsinghua’s strengths in computer science and entrepreneurship and Seattle’s status as an innovation hub. Microsoft is providing $40 million of the program’s funding.
While GIX has gotten more attention, Soochow University in China’s coastal Jiangsu province was the first Chinese university to set up a physical campus abroad. Its campus in Vientiane, Laos’s largest city, opened in July 2011. It did so in part to burnish its domestic reputation; as Wang Jiexian, the vice president of Soochow University in Laos, told the New York Times in Feb. 2014, “Only by going out can we close in on the top Chinese universities, and we think Laos is a suitable location to begin.” From China’s perspective, it may have been a way to test the waters before other universities undertook projects abroad in better-known locations.
One of the main attractions for students at Soochow’s Lao campus is the opportunity to study Mandarin to improve employment prospects in a country where China’s influence looms large, and where domestic education options are relatively sparse. In 2015, it was among ten schools in Asia where the number of students taking the HSK, a test of Chinese proficiency, more than doubled from the previous year. “By the time they graduate, all our students will be able to speak Chinese,” Wang told the Times. “They can speak at least two languages, understand the cultures of the two countries, and work well in a Chinese company here.”
The campus still has many obstacles to scale. The tuition for the Vientiane campus is up to five times that at a Laotian university. For now, after a year of study in Laos, students transition to the (even more expensive) Suzhou campus for their remaining years. And construction on a permanent campus, which began in 2013, has since been hindered by land disputes. The university aspires to enroll 5,000 students within the next ten to 20 years, but in 2014, the school had only 50 undergraduates and 100 night students. The campus’ declared scale may be intended more to reflect the project’s importance than actual expectations of how many students will enroll.
An even more ambitious new Chinese campus is taking shape across 150 lush acres 30 miles from Kuala Lumpur at the Xiamen University Malaysia Campus (XMUMC). The original Xiamen University is located in Fujian, China. The project is a substantial investment, with a cost of over $300 million and endorsements by senior officials in both nations.
XMUMC’s president, Wang Ruifang, has claimed that student interest has already surpassed his expectations, although the first class of 187 students who enrolled in late February falls far short of the 5,000 students from ASEAN nations and China itself that the university says it intends to enroll in 2020. Wang explained in an interview with Malaysia’s Sunday Star that he hoped “our China factor will help lure students.” But Wang has also noted the challenge of vying against the large number of existing universities in Malaysia. That means that “the number of students who actually show up at Xiamen matters … it is in a sense an index of the institution’s reputation and of the country’s reputation as educators,” said Alex Usher, the president of the consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates.
As it grows, the school eventually hopes to draw students from across Southeast Asia and to create a “multi-cultural campus,” according to the President of Xiamen University Zhu Chongshi. XMUMC offers eight of its ten academic programs in English, reaching out to a broader audience. Given Malaysia’s history of tensions between ethnic Malays and Chinese, the language of instruction and degree of affiliation with the Chinese community may affect XMUMC’s soft power success. According to Usher, it could hinder their efforts “if you get seen as being part of one community rather than the other.” But Jackerson Ng, a current student at XMUMC originally from Malaysia, told FP by message that one of the factors that attracted him to the campus is that “China is currently rising as a strong country in all aspects, [so] why not give this top university a try?”
Exposing a younger generation, including potential foreign leaders, to Chinese perspectives can be a long-term investment to promote closer political, economic, and ideological ties. The current president of Ethiopia, Mulatu Teshome, received all of his higher education at Peking University. As president, he has shown interest in emulating the Chinese development model in Ethiopia. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the current prime minister of Kazakhstan, another nation that maintains warm relations with China, was a student at both China’s Wuhan University and Beijing Language Institute. If campuses abroad can attract additional foreign students, the ranks of future world leaders with Chinese educations and friendly dispositions toward Beijing may grow.
But those Chinese values can be a double-edged sword; concerns over academic freedom have overshadowed previous Chinese educational ventures. Over 120 nations now host more than 480 Confucius Institutes, centers established to teach Mandarin and promote Chinese culture abroad by an affiliate group of the Chinese Ministry of Education known as the Hanban. These institutes have also found their share of controversy. In the United States, both Penn State and the University of Chicago closed the Confucius Institutes at their institutions over differences of opinion on research and course content. In June 2014, the American Association of University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a statement noting the potential for excessive supervision from the Hanban and restrictions on academic freedom at Confucius Institutes.
Branch campuses abroad could potentially entail similar risks. Kinser said that since “China is trying to present itself as sort of a modern and elite kind of country and developing a higher education system in that way,” the effort could backfire “if it gets hit with too many examples of places where it has restricted freedom.”
The Chinese government’s recent emphasis on promoting nationalism and party loyalty through its education system might also deter students. In February, the Ministry of Education issued a directive that encouraged educational institutions at all levels to embed patriotic education in their curricula and to remind all university students to “always follow the party.” The directive also sought to promote national values among Chinese students overseas through connections with “the motherland, embassies and consulates, overseas student groups, and the broad number of students abroad — so that they fully feel that the motherland cares.” The diktats said nothing about Chinese campuses or programs abroad. But if overseas Chinese students are targeted for patriotic education, overseas schools that ultimately answer to Beijing could be subject to similar meddling.
The new campuses have gotten a mixed reception within China. Some appear to take pride in the projects as a sign of their country’s growing influence. On Weibo, a researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China wrote that XMUMC was helping to flip the script on decades of Malaysian government discrimination against ethnic Chinese. Others criticized the choice to establish campuses abroad as driven by university or government officials, not students or faculty. Finally, some saw the entire trend of Chinese universities trying to go global as futile. One commenter on another platform wrote, “Currently Chinese universities fundamentally do not possess the basic conditions for internationalization.”
Some in China also suspect that the branch campuses will require government funding, which could divert limited educational resources away from Mainland universities. While branch campuses can be effective in promoting soft power and raising a university’s profile, Usher said, “They’re effective to the extent that you’re prepared to lose money at them.” Collaborations abroad are expensive endeavors. For now, Chinese universities don’t seem overly concerned with potential profits; XMUMC says it plans to funnel any money it might make toward scholarships and research in Malaysia.
The target student bodies for branch campuses remain unclear. Some see them as operating more like study-abroad sites for Chinese students. For example, Tongji University ‘s program in Florence hosted 29 Chinese students for a spring semester program. Others, such as GIX, are likely to recruit more mixed student bodies. In the near term, none of that is likely to dissuade Chinese educational institutions from their grand plans. But the success of the early campuses that have taken the plunge will be an important indicator of whether President Xi can hope to shape global higher education in China’s image.