Tuesday, 29 January 2013

First Chinese Overseas Campus Announced: Xiamen in Malaysia

Nanyang.com website reported on Sunday some major news concerning one of China's leading universities. Xiamen University, a member of the prestigious Project 985 group of universities, is to establish a branch campus in Salak Tinggi, the capital of Sepang District in Selangor, Malaysia. Salak Tinggi is located roughly 40km from central Kuala Lumpur.

This is a major announcement and comes rapidly on the heels of major policy initiatives in Chinese HE termed the "invite in" (请进来) and "going out" (走出去) policies which aim to use Chinese HE as the vanguard of China's continued integration into the global economy. There are also elements of a soft power charm offensive here, with specifically the "going out" (zouchuqu 走出去) emphasizing the role of HE in disseminating and communicating the state narrative of China's development around the world.

Thus far the emphasis on the internationalization of China's HE system has focused on knowledge transfer from west to east, particularly in the fields of science & technology, management science and administrative expertise. On the surface, the establishment of a Chinese university branch campus overseas may appear to be a logical step, yet had the emphasis remained on aspects related to knowledge transfer, we would have expected to see a high profile partnership with an existing world-ranked university in the US or UK.

In terms of figures, the XMU-Malaysia's campus will be constructed by 2015 at a cost of 600m Malaysian Ringgits (that's RMB1.2bn, or £120m) and will admit 10,000 students in its first phase (that is thought to be a total enrolment figure reached after 5-6years, rather than an initial intake figure).

Yet, this move really could throw the cat amongst the pigeons in Malaysia, especially where UK universities have invested a great deal of money in building branch campus operations. In both Singapore and Malaysia, established universities from the UK, US and Australia have aggressively marketed high tuition fee programmes with varying degrees of success. Recently, NYU pulled out of their Singapore commitment and closed their TISCH Asia school citing a lack of student numbers. Fees at NYU TISCH Asia were in excess of US$40k per annum and the closure reportedly cost the Singaporean government in excess of US$20m in lost subsidies given to TISCH.

It is fair to say that the majority of Singaporean/Malaysian students cannot afford such exorbitant fees, or even the fees being charged by UK universities such as Nottingham, Newcastle, Reading and others invested in the region. However, Chinese UG programmes in China cost in the region of £500 per annum, so it will be interesting to see how XMU-Malaysia addresses the tuition fees question.

Furthermore, Xiamen University has some excellent advantages in this region. Firstly, it was established by Tan Kah Kee (Chen Jiageng 陈嘉庚) as the University of Amoy (Amoy being the old name of Xiamen). Tan was a wealthy and famous Fujian-Singaporean philanthropist and is extremely well-known and revered in SE Asia. Secondly, along with Tan, most of the Chinese diaspora in SE Asia are descended from Fujian immigrants and speak the Fujian dialect or a slight variation on it (known as Hokkien throughout the SE Asian region). This gives an incredibly strong connection to Fujian and Xiamen amongst a great deal of the Chinese population in Malaysia. In fact, knowing how the Chinese HE sector is so strategically controlled, it is impossible to see this as an internal Xiamen initiative. The cultural suitability of Xiamen for this project is such, and when considering the high level ministerial approval needed, that it can only really be viewed as a national-strategic initiative to kick start Chinese HE as a major regional power in the Asia Pacific.

Similarly, offering degrees in English and Chinese (Mandarin/Hokkien) would be easily achievable for XMU in Malaysia. The aim is to recruit 33% of students from Malaysia, 33% from China and 33% from other international markets. While this might be tough, especially such a high proportion from international markets, it is easy to see how Xiamen would be an attractive option for both Malaysian Chinese and Mainland Chinese students. Furthermore, 10k students is a big chunk of the market that UK universities in the region have had pretty much to themselves.

Finally, however, we should consider the wider implications for western education in the region. China itself wants and has fairly good relationships throughout the ASEAN region. Further integration through HE could have huge implications for the int'l recruitment activities of UK universities. Not only will XMU-Malaysia be a strong competitor in the region, it will also turn heads towards China across SE Asia. Can the UK really afford to lose significant market share in places like Vietnam, India, Malaysia and Indonesia to a rapidly internationalizing Chinese HE juggernaut? It most certainly cannot. And we should also not forget that the Chinese government have set a target of 500k international students per annum by 2015, 150k of which should be on full degree seeking programmes.

I've had several conversation with people in Chinese HE on the feasibility of such ambitious expansion in international numbers (currently 290k total, mostly on short-term programmes). One VP of a prominent 985 University had little doubt that such figures could be achieved before sharing that the resources being channeled to the largescale internationalization of Chinese HE are phenomenal and the rewards available to those delivering success (in terms of career advancement) particularly high.

There really does appear to be a strong push for internationalization in Chinese HE. And with such a wealthy, well-resourced and strategically focused New Kid on the Block, those universities heavily invested in the SE Asia region should really sit up and take note. This could be the first volley fired in a protracted war for educational supremacy in the Asia Pacific.