Universities slow to embrace China’s Hainan branch campus vision

Overseas institutions opt for partnerships with local counterparts rather than going it alone, despite regulatory incentives

四月 23, 2024
A resident rides past an uprooted tree in Lingao County, Hainan Province of China. to illustrate Universities slow to embrace China’s Hainan branch campus vision
Source: Luo Yunfei/China News Service/Getty Images

Geopolitical risks and the opening up of other Asian countries may be deterring universities from establishing branch campuses in China’s largest free trade port, according to analysts. 

Over the past six years, China has set out to transform the island of Hainan, the country’s southernmost point, into an international tourism and investment hub.

The region is a special economic zone, free from the trade regulations that govern the rest of the country. Part of the plan for the island is to attract foreign universities and, in April 2023, China published the regulations for opening branch campuses.

Although China is already home to branch campuses of overseas universities, these institutions have historically been required to find a Chinese partner in order to operate in the country. In Hainan, the same rules don’t apply – foreign institutions can set up independently to offer courses in science, engineering, agriculture and medicine.

At the end of last year, Germany’s FH Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences became the first to establish an independent branch campus in China. The new university, Hainan Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences, opened in winter 2023, albeit with less than 100 students at first. In time, it hopes, this number will grow to 12,000. Also in the pipeline for Hainan is a branch of Switzerland’s EHL Hospitality Business School and a Russian technical university

Isabel Xu, knowledge economy director at the China-Britain Business Council, said that by allowing independent foreign campuses, the government was attempting to avoid a “chain-store model” of transnational education, where overseas universities work with multiple Chinese partners, “which is not diversified from the government’s perspective, but is usually beneficial for the UK [or] international side for having a scale effect and gaining profit”. 

But experts suggested top institutions may be wary of setting up independently in the region. Claudia Wang, a partner at strategy advisers Oliver Wyman, said the main concerns were geopolitical risks and a “relatively slow payback period”. Added to this was the lack of academic freedom, said Stephen Wilkins, professor of strategy and marketing at the British University in Dubai. 

“Institutions may also perceive things like the need to deliver compulsory political and ideological courses as a barrier,” said Professor Wilkins. “Foreign institutions in Hainan may enjoy full ownership, but they are unlikely to enjoy full academic freedom.”

Other countries, including India and Indonesia, have launched similar special economic zones pitched at foreign universities, adding to the competition Hainan faces in attracting both investors and students.  

Instead, institutions appear to be attempting to mitigate risk by setting up joint partnerships instead of wholly independent branches. Among those operating in the region with Chinese partners are Coventry University, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Alberta.

Despite the concerns, experts agreed that the potential for transnational education in China remained significant. “Some Chinese students are now deterred from studying abroad because of the costs, geopolitical concerns, and fears over safety,” said Professor Wilkins. “However, many Chinese families still perceive a foreign education as attractive.” 

According to Cheryl Yu, co-founder of education consultancy Higher Education Connected, although Hainan’s international education project seems “like a mystery to outsiders”, the scale and speed of development there has been “phenomenal”. The main education zone within the region expects to have capacity for 10,000 students by the end of 2025; there are currently about 2,000 students there. 

“It takes time to build up confidence for students and university faculties to move to a new place,” Ms Xu added.




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