Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Internationalization of China’s Higher Education Sector Part 1: East-to-West Student Migration

Since the turn of the 21st century, universities in English speaking countries have done very well out of China’s continuing emergence as a major global economy. 

The US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have attracted Chinese students in their droves; students keen to develop the skills necessary to compete in the global job market.  In China, such is the extent of competition in the job market that the minimum necessary requirement for a half-decent job is a Masters degree. 

The strategies employed by universities to cash in on China’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for quality higher education have been diverse.  While almost all universities recruit students directly, networks of agents are often used to source Chinese students.  In many cases, these agents charge both the overseas university and the student for securing a place.  It is not unheard of, if the student secures a scholarship, for the Chinese agent to demand a share of that scholarship.   Universities, depending on the volume of students recruited, typically pay 10%-15% finders fee to the agent from the first year’s tuition fees. 

While such strategies are practically universal, many universities have decided to adopt evermore complex recruitment strategies.  Pathways centres partnerships have proved very successful in attracting international students.  Companies such as Kaplan, INTO and Study Group have differing approaches to the establishment of Pathways Centres at UK universities.  However, some view these “International Foundation Years” as a back door into quality HE institutions, with entrance criteria significantly lower than that which is required for direct entry to the university itself.  Nevertheless, the argument for pathways centres is that they help educate the foundation level students to the required standards to undertake full-time undergraduate study at leading universities.  So successful are they at recruiting students and channeling them to universities that many top UK universities have established partnerships for Pathways Centres, including Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Exeter, Glasgow, Nottingham Trent, Brighton, Bournemouth, Stirling, Lancaster, Lincoln, Surrey, Sussex, Newport (Uni of Wales), Leicester, Keele, Kingston, Heriot-Watt,  East Anglia, Manchester and Glasgow Caledonian.  These study centres, which are open only to international students – not UK students - add a foundation year to a 3yr UK degree programme.  Progression to the 3yr degree programme is not guaranteed, but it does provide a way for students with insufficient qualifications to gain access to UK HE, in many cases to leading universities. 

Meanwhile joint-teaching programmes, typically known as 2+2 programmes, at the UG level can be a good way for western universities to combat drop-out rates.    This is where a student enters a Chinese university for the first 2 years of their UG education, and then transfers for the final 2 years to an overseas university.  These types of arrangements are widespread in China, but are viewed in a poor light by the Ministry of Education (MoE), especially in instances where the sole focus is on the export of Chinese students, rather than the development of robust teaching and administrative procedures while the students are in the first 2 years of the programme and studying with the Chinese partner.  In 2007, the MoE issued a circular detailing its lack of faith in such programmes and directly criticizing 2+2 programmes where the foreign partner focused wholly on marketing and export of Chinese students while neglecting teaching and administrative standards in the portion of the degree programme delivered in China.  Neverthless, such programmes continue to be established in China, with the MoE publishing a list of over 400 such approved Sino-Foreign joint programmes in July 2010.   More recently, Zhang Xiuqin of the MoE announced a new crackdown on programmes with scathing remarks about “some foreign educational institutes (which) take advantage of the programs in order to make more money.”  Mrs Zhang made the comments while introducing a new MoE policy aimed at establishing tighter quality control of joint-programmes, requiring Chinese and foreign universities to go through a more rigorous approval process.  In addition to several documents (laws, regulations and circulars) issued by the MoE since 2007, the message is clear: any foreign university which does not provide clear benefits to Chinese higher education, or which exports vast amounts of money in the form of transferred students’ tuition fees, will come under close scrutiny.

A recent development is the establishment of training colleges within leading Chinese universities which offer 1+3 and 2+2 programmes.  These training colleges have agreements with universities in the west to send students overseas after completing a Foundation Year, or the first two years of a 4yr undergraduate programme, usually comprised of a 1yr foundation with a focus on English for Academic Purposes, and a 2nd year covering a common 1st year of an undergraduate programme.  However, the implication is that such students are enrolled at the Chinese university, when in fact they are not.  Mostly, they are students who have failed to score sufficiently in the ultra-competitive Gaokao exam (University Entrance Exam) to secure a place at a leading Chinese university, but who have sufficient wealth to pay higher fees.  The training college then enrolls the student for 1 or 2 years, at fees 10 times higher than the standard Chinese university fee, before sending them overseas for the remaining 2-3 years of the degree programme.  Such training centres provide another “pathway” into HE at leading universities in the west, while effectively circumventing entrance requirements.  Students at these training centres pay much higher fees than those enrolled at the Chinese university and are never actually officially enrolled with the Chinese partner university (i.e. not recognized by the MoE as undergraduate students) but with a wholly-owned subsidiary training company owned by the university.  Effectively, this allows for the complete circumvention of entry standards and even IELTS or similar English language requirements.  It is unclear the extent to which foreign (US, UK, Canadian etc) universities are complicit in this process, or whether they genuinely believe they are getting Chinese students from University X, rather than sub-standard students enrolled in a training company owned by University X.  To give an example, there is one leading UK University which admits Chinese students with scores of 450 out of 750 in the Gaokao.  Their Chinese partner would never accept a student with scores this low into their own UG programmes, but they are happy to charge these students 9 times the standard Chinese university fee to be registered at their “International College” where students are registered on 2+2 programme with the world-class UK partner.  Worse still, in the event the student has a grade lower than 450, a qualifying interview can be given to the student.  This practice is very widespread and becoming even more prevalent. To give an idea, whereas estalbished JV universities (see below) recruit exclusively Tier 1 Gaokao students from across China, setting entrance criteria as low as 450 (and in some cases lower) means students will be taken from Tier 3 and Tier 4, depending on which province they come from.  

The boldest and most robust examples of internationalization are to be found in the few Sino-Foreign Joint Venture universities, notably Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University (XJTLU) and the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC).  These universities recruit only through the Gaokao exam, and take only those students with Tier 1 Gaokao scores.  Students at these two universities have the option of undertaking either a 2+2 programme, or taking the whole of their 4yr degree in China.  It is often thought that both XJTLU and UNNC are “branch campuses” of the UK universities, but this is absolutely not the case.  Both are established under the 2003 Law and are legally independent and come under the direct jurisdiction of the MoE.  They are listed as official universities in China and, as such, can recruit directly from the Gaokao in the same manner that all other Chinese universities do.  Having said that, the Gaokao recruitment process is not an open market, with provinces having to negotiate with other provinces for quotas.  It is a process which is characterized by strategic risk, where parents and students must consider applications based not only on the scores they have achieved at Gaokao, but also try to understand how other students will apply.  For example, if a student from Shandong Province has a Tier 1 Gaokao score, it may not be sufficient to enter their chosen university.  If that university has only 100 places for Shandong students, they must take the first 100 students with scores in excess of the Tier 1 benchmark.  So if 100 students with a score of 600+ apply, then the 101st student with 599 will be rejected, even if the Tier 1 benchmark is set at 570.

Almost without exception, western universities are looking to China to continue to provide a constant stream of high-fee paying students.  In my opinion, the attitude of western universities, certainly those from Anglophone countries, is, at times, indefensible.  It is highly questionable whether or not those universities developing a presence in China want to contribute anything at all to the development of Chinese higher education.   All efforts appear to be simply aimed at transferring large numbers of students back to the UK, US or another country to help replenish the coffers.  Allegedly collaborative HE programmes are often characterized by arrogant western institutions trying to transplant their home university’s bureaucratic systems into their Chinese partner institution, showing scant regard for the cultural, social, legal and administrative traditions of their Chinese partner and China.  This is especially problematic when those bureaucratic procedures and/or the quality standards of the programme are not delivered to the required standards.  Such attitudes, whether parochial or ethnocentric, often leave the western side of the “partnership” feeling isolated and at war with their Chinese partners.  For those of us who’ve been in China a while, it is a constant surprise to watch the sometimes adversarial approach of newcomers and, especially, those ensconced back in Head Office.  The simple fact is that the onus really is on those working in China to adapt better to the distinctly different environment and to respect China’s quite understandable wish that they deliver quality education, rather than treat the country as a gravy train.  Anyone with even the vaguest understanding of modern China and its recent past will understand why this is the case.  Unfortunately it appears many do not. 

At the bottom end of the scale, poorly conceived 2+2 programmes will continue to come under scrutiny from the MoE and even provincial education bureaus.  However, those JV universities also need to protect themselves from accusations that they are little more than large scale 2+2 programmes.  There are constant rumours of more JV universities being established, with Lancaster in talks with Guangdong University of Foreign Studies (Guangwai); Duke University collaborating with Wuhan University in the city of Kunshan, Jiangsu province , and New York University establishing a JV campus in the Lujiazui Financial District of Pudong, Shanghai with East China Normal University (ECNU) as its Chinese JV partner.   The latter two, Duke Kunshan University and Shanghai New York University, launched with much fanfare last year, yet both have recently announced they will open doors to students in 2013, rather than 2011 as first stated.  Both wanted to launch with Masters programmes, which, as anyone who knows Chinese HE and specifically the establishment process for JV’s, must be approved by the State Council (China’s cabinet).  Thus far, neither have received approval from the MoE to operate a JV campus, although both have buildings which have received investment.    With regards to Lancaster, no plans or proposals have yet emerged.  They perhaps think they can simply move their long-established 2+2 programme with Guangwai to a new campus, but the establishment of a new JV is a far more complicated prospect.  Certainly, they will be forced to raise their entry standards as a consequence of establishing a JV.   In the event they are not establishing a JV, but rather a College of Guangwai, they will be forced to compete on the open market for students, accepting those students who have failed to score sufficiently in the Gaokao to secure a place at a Chinese university.  

The period from 2000 to 2011 has all been about recruitment of Chinese students to foreign universities, with knowledge transfer also being a key factor in the MoE allowing the establishment of JV universities.  While it is beyond doubt that Chinese students will continue to pursue overseas education, the policy of the Chinese government and the MoE clearly oppose the continued treatment of China as a cash cow.  Indeed, collaborative programmes which provide no benefit to the host (Chinese) institution are unlikely to get off the ground.  For those familiar with Chinese legal documents, being very vague so as to allow, not for interpretation in a variety of different ways, but for enforcement by the authorities as they see fit, the 2006 amendment to the Chinese 2003 Law on establishment of cooperative schools should be seen as a watershed moment where Chinese HE moves to exert greater control of quality in cooperative education programmes.  In addition the 2010-2020 Medium to Long-Term Education Plan explicitly states the importance of internationalization of Chinese universities, which is becoming manifest in Chinese HE discourse as a need to rebalance the high export of students through fostering new strategies to import large numbers of foreign students into China’s higher education system.   

Next Week: 
Part II:  The Changing Tide in the Internationalization of Chinese Higher Education


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