Friday, 14 October 2011

The Internationalization of Chinese Higher Education Part II: The Changing Tide in a Perfect Storm.

As discussed in the last post, the internationalization of ChineseHigher Education has been characterized by east-west student migration.   Strategies to exploit the vastness ofChina’s HE market have ranged from direct student recruitment, recruitment viaagents, 2+2 programmes (many of highly questionable quality) and theestablishment of JV universities. 

While there can be littledoubt that large numbers of Chinese students will continue to seek high qualityeducation overseas, both at UG and PG level, the Ministry of Education (MoE)has, since 2006, issued several policy documents which indicate a growingdissatisfaction with status quo. 

Firstly, in 2006, the MoEissued a policy amendment stating that:

Education is a noble, public-interest undertaking whose basic goal isthe cultivation of human talent. Educational service is not trade in goods, noris it equivalent to trade in typical services. The aim and nature ofChinese-foreign cooperation in running schools must be correctly grasped. Theimplementation of random fees or high fees under the guise of Chinese-foreigncooperation in running schools is strictly prohibited; tendencies towards theindustrialization of education shall be guarded against”. 

MoEOpinion Concerning SeveralCurrent Problems in Sino-Foreign Cooperatively Managed Schools, 2006 (教育部关于当前中外合作学若干问题的意). 

This amendmentto the 2003 Regulations then continues in Article 2:

In the process of developing Chinese-foreign cooperation in runningschools, attention shall be paid to strengthening the leading position of theChinese educational institution and adamantly carrying out national educationalpolicies

MoEOpinion Concerning SeveralCurrent Problems in Sino-Foreign Cooperatively Managed Schools, 2006 (教育部关于当前中外合作学若干问题的意). 

A furthercircular issued in 2007, as well as recent comments by MoE officials, did nothide their contempt for the continuing treatment of China as a flesh market forforeign universities.  2006/7 certainlymarked the beginning of a shift in MoE thinking on Sino-Foreign HE cooperation,with the new emphasis appearing to focus more on the benefits provided toChinese HE and the achievement of national HE objectives.  

Thepublication of the 2010-2020 National Medium to Long Term Education Reform andDevelopment Plan Outline (2010-2020 国家中教育改革和发展规划纲要) constitutes a shift indirection for Chinese HE, moving away from the policy objectives of the last10-15 years; massification, marketization. The new catchwords in Chinese HE are “innovation”, “internationalization”and “quality standards”. 

“Innovation” refers to China’s deficit in intellectual property.  At the meeting of the Ministry of EducationScience and Technology Management Committee, which I was lucky enough to attendlast year, Professor Liu Renhuai gave a staggering statistic that outlines theenormity of this problem in China.  Chinain 2009 paid US$1.35 trillion per annum in oil imports to fuel its economicgrowth.  In comparison, Chinese companiespaid an estimated US$1.5 trillion in licensing fees for foreign technology.  Innovation, particularly in Science andTechnology, has become the overarching objective of education reform at alllevels in China.  Economists will notethat any moderate success in building an innovative, knowledge-based economy bythe PRC will have grave implications for foreign tech firms and for the nationaleconomies of developed nations where high-end science and technology innovationhas largely replaced downstream industries which have already been outsourcedto places like China, Vietnam, India, Brazil and other rapidly developingnations.  Even if China manage to snatch20% of this US$1.5tr over the next 10 years, this represents a US$300bn rise inthe trade deficit with advanced nations like UK, EU and US.  Western nations have, since the advent ofneoliberalism, shifted all of their economic eggs into one basket and China isnow looking at that basket and hoping to incorporate it into its own widerconfiguration of baskets.  Its somethingthat should give western politicians sleepless nights. 

“QualityStandards” aims to rapidly increase the delivery of quality education throughall tiers of China’s education system. There is a tacit recognition in the policy document that China needs towean itself off the teacher-centred model prevalent throughout the educationsystem.  More explicitly, the 2010-2020plan calls for student-centred learning to be adopted in higher education.  More robust teaching and assessment will beguaranteed to meet minimum criteria through the introduction of a quality assurancesystem.  However, this emphasis onquality standards fails to acknowledge the simple basic truth that it is verydifficult to rapidly improve education provision through qualityassurance.  Furthermore, it introduces a‘compliance culture’ into HE, where the prevailing attitude can often become“what is the least we can get away with”. Call me a bluff, old traditionalist, but I think academia is best leftin the hands of academics whose main interest is research and teaching thesubjects they are passionate about.  Onlyby creating an atmosphere conducive to scholarly excellence will you improvestandards rapidly.  Weaving aOrwellian/Weberian bureaucratic dystopia that constrains academic talent onlyserves to destroy the soul of the university, yet it is something you often seepursued with evangelist vigour by some hopelessly misled universityadministrators. 

Thisbrings us to the final catchword of China’s new HE vision:“internationalization”.  And this iswhere things begin to get interesting.  Priorto the 2010-2020 plan, internationalization has been carried out almostmindlessly in China.  In terms ofresearch, there have been no shortage of eager senior administrators from thewest, keen to sign on the dotted line, a phenomenon made all the more common byChina’s famous ability to massage the egos of rather vain westerners.  Similarly, Chinese academics score majorpoints for bringing an international tie-up. However, it is difficult to think of any really successful example of a research collaboration that hasachieved anything more impressive than its own inauguration ceremony and theaccompanying fanfare of flowers, red carpets, impromptu speeches, headlines andchauffeur-driven cars, kept on stand-by to whisk the visiting signatories backto the sanctity of their 5 star hotel as quickly as is humanly possible.   Collaborative teaching and joint programmesare also usually launched in this rather ostentatious manner before they begintheir decline, a decline often beginning at the exact moment the ViceChancellor or President (or a high-ranking representative) straps him/herselfinto a business class seat on the runway at Pudong or BeijingInternational.  OK.  Perhaps its easy to be cynical and dismissiveof many internationalization projects in China; many have been successful, butthey remain firmly in the minority. 

TheChanging Tide

Thedifference now is that China, the MoE and China’s universities are gettingwise.  They no longer want headlines, butrather programmes and partnerships that deliver the goals of the HE policiesnow being passed down through the administrative framework: State Council toMoE to the Party Secretaries and Senior Administrators in universities.  While there is acceptance that Chinesestudents will continue to seek education overseas, the MoE and Chineseuniversities are realizing that international students are needed to acceleratethe adoption of student-centred learning within their own universities.  I’ve come across several estimates of figuresfor international students that the MoE wants by 2020.  A reasonable estimate appears to be that theywant 500,000 foreign students studying in China by 2020, 150,000 of whom shouldbe enrolled on full-time Chinese university degree programmes (UG, PG andDoctoral).  This would deliver, withinten years, a total rebalancing of China’s brain-drain (although many overseaseducated Chinese are already returning to China now), and would transform Chinainto a net-importer of students.  While alarge amount of these students would come from advanced nations such as the US,Canada, UK, EU, Australia and New Zealand, many will come from countries whichtraditionally send students to those countries (India, Malaysia, Nigeria,Ghana, South Korea, Taiwan).  In short,China is transforming from a market for western HE sectors into acompetitor.  Western universities shouldbe concerned not about losing Chinese students to a rapidly improving ChineseHE industry, but to losing students from other markets who decide to undertakedegrees delivered through EMI in China’s top universities.  Really, although to achieve their goal of 150,000students on full time programmes might seem impossible, breaking thatfigure down shows that even if this effort is focused on the elite Project 985 universities,it is not actually that unfathomable.  I,for one, would never bet against China. 

Thereare 39 Project 985 Universities.  Theywould have to have 3846 foreign students each in order to hit the magic 150,000full time foreign students.  Lets say,for argument's sake 50 of those will be PhD’s, with a PhD lasting 4 years.  Masters generally last 2-3 years in China,but lets say 2 years.  UG programmes areall 4yrs.  Project 985 universities wouldhave to hit the following intake limits by 2015/16 academic year in order toensure the target is reached. 

UGInt’l Intake 2015/16         -            750 (x4yrs = 3000)

PhDInt’l Intake 2015/16        -            50 (x4yrs = 200)

MastersIntake 2018/19          -            325 (x2yrs = 650)

TOTALIntake                       -            1100

Thiswould give a total number of students at 3850 in the 2019/20 academic year(assuming no drop-outs), which when multiplied by the 39 Project 985 universities, gives a figure of 150,150.  OK, it’s theback-of-an-envelope calculation, but it illustrates that 150,000 students onfull time UG study may not be as laughable as it first appears.  Especially if you recognize that universitiesoutside the Project 985 group will almost certainly get in on the act, theactual number of universities recruiting significant numbers of foreignstudents will likely be around the 100 mark. 

Ofcourse, there are myriad obstacles, some seemingly insurmountable, which makethis prospect appear doubtful.  Firstly,the need to deliver UG and PG programmes largely in English and in a manneracceptable to western students (English as the Medium of Instruction or ‘EMI’)must be established on a previously unseen scale across China’s eliteuniversities (those 39 members of Project 985 and the 100+ members of Project211).  Secondly, the level of trustplaced in Chinese HE by prospective foreign students must be addressed.  This is easier said than done.  It is not merely a case of sendingInternational Officers to recruit international students - internationalrecruitment activities and the international recruitment marketplace are stilltotally focused on east-to-west student migration – it is a case of marketcreation.  Chinese universities haveseveral options at their disposal for this, namely: Exchange Programmes, StudyAbroad Programmes and World Rankings.  AsChinese elite universities rise in the rankings, so will the esteem of Chinese HEin general, and doubts as to the quality of Chinese HE will dissipate.  Through exchange and study abroadrelationships, Chinese universities can increase their visibility in thecurrent market.  Exchange and StudyAbroad carry less risk for the students, as they remain registered at theirhome institution, but it remains a powerful tool for Chinese universities toconstruct the foundations of the new market to lure foreigners to Chineseuniversities on a full time basis.   Itsall about building trust.  Finally, thereis the issue of talent.  Chineseuniversities are filled with lots of very hard-working, talented and passionateacademics, but they are also poorly remunerated, poorly treated and arepressured to direct their attentions to research outputs, with volume, notquality, being the key performance indicator. This certainly has to change and it is not difficult to foresee asituation whereby foreign student fees are used to raise conditions for Chineseacademics and administrators.  Regardlessof whether China is successful in this regard, this is something that musthappen if China wants a world-class HE sector. Its not rocket science. 

ThePerfect Storm

Thereare several other factors which are going to influence this process.  If the efforts of the Chinese noted above canbe described as “pull factors”, the “push” factors in the west are alsoconverging to direct more and more students to undertake study in China. 

TheUS State Department launched the rather clumsily titled “100k Strong” initiativein early 2010.  The stated objective ofthis programme is to have 100k US students undertake part of their UG study inChina by 2015 (yes, that does say 2015, its not a typo)  This is already having a clear impact inChina.  Although some universities, suchas NYU and UC Denver, have long established Study Abroad Centers in China, manyare moving now, with the likes of Stanford establishing a Study Abroad Centerat Peking University.  The top USuniversities are likely to enter into their own collaborations, but privateeducation providers such as INTO and a new US company called gMEO are aiming tobridge the gap between US and Chinese institutions and facilitate large scalenumbers of US students studying in China on credit-bearing UG courses.  Of course, organizations such a IIE, CIEE andAPI will continue to channel US students to well-estalbished language andcultural programmes at universities like Fudan, Peking, Tsinghua, BLCU,Shanghai Jiaotong and others. 

Lookingto Europe and we have a similar situation, although the EU is taking a lessaggressive approach.  The LeuvenInitiative is focused on promoting international student mobility for studentsfrom EU member states.  Its over-archingaim is to increase the percentage of students taking part of or all of their UGstudy outside their home country from the current 1% to 20% by 2020.  Again, this represents a major opportunity inthe area of Exchange Programmes (Study Abroad being a uniquely US phenomenon).  The issue here is that of English languagecapability as Chinese students will lack the requisite English language skills(or other European language skills) to undertake UG study in Europe, even inthe event Chinese universities have sufficient courses taught in English.  A possible fix, which no one appears to havethought of thus far, is a UG for PG exchange. i.e. sending European UG students to a Chinese university who then sendgraduate students to the European university (with the Chinese graduate simplypaying the Chinese university an agreed fee rather than paying the European universitythe graduate fees).  Whether it’s aworkable solution from a financial and administrative point of view is anotherquestion entirely, although internationalization of the student body is anobvious benefit to both institutions and should be judged on that basis ratherthan a financial basis. 

Toconclude, I think it would be fair to say that there is a possible convergenceof policy interventions at play which could work to China’s favour.  Policy aside, China’s place in the worldcontinues to become more central, both economically and politically, and itwould be reasonable to assume that many young people will have their headsturned east as financial turmoil in the west continues.  Talent usually goes where opportunitiesabound and China, as well as India, Brazil and several other non-traditionallocations, may offer more than the stagnating economies of the global North.  It will certainly be interesting to watch itall unfold and, hopefully, be a part of a very exciting juncture in thedevelopment of international HE. 


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