It used to be that to hold out a business card bearing the name of a UK university gained you automatic respect in Asia. There may have been the odd mutterings of dissent, but, by and large, you were welcome to discuss collaborative projects and student recruitment. For some time, however, this has no longer been the case – notably in China.
Conscious of a need to develop its knowledge base and improve its higher education sector, the Chinese government decided earlier this millennium to tap into one of its most precious resources: the vast cohort of expatriate academics with wide experience of training and work overseas (mainly in the US and Canada). Lured home with generous subsidies and promises of career development via schemes such as the Thousand Talents programme, they are now numerous enough to be game changers in the way China sees the rest of the world. And this has consequences for UK and other Western universities.
This became apparent to me during my recent three years as a senior academic in a Chinese university in Macau, during which I had extensive opportunities to travel the country and to interact with top Chinese academics. I was present at meetings on internationalisation where approaches from UK universities were discussed, and I was regularly asked for my opinion on the quality of UK universities.
Let me explain how the process works. Upon being approached by a UK university proposing a collaboration, these former expatriate Chinese academics immediately do what they’ve always done: investigate where the university stands in the UK’s pecking order in places such as Times Higher Education. They are familiar with the research excellence framework but also well aware of its shortcomings, especially the way that relatively small groups of researchers can push up the standing of a university that is also home to many non-research-active staff. They also compare the UK’s research metrics with China’s own international ranking system, Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Unwilling to take decisions on the basis of rankings alone, however, they then do something that might strike most Westerners as unusual: they scrutinise the online profile of the potential partner institution’s vice-chancellor. They are not invariably looking for outstanding academic achievement and are often impressed by leaders who entered the academy with a strong record of achievement elsewhere. But they are unforgiving when it comes to career academics who they do not believe measured up on either parameter.
It may well be that university leaders’ online profiles are insufficiently thought through and obscure their real achievements. But in a competitive world in which these confident and well-travelled Chinese academics simply compare and contrast them, this is going to have to change. And UK universities, in particular, are going to have to think more carefully about their criteria for appointing senior staff.
Frequent comparisons are made between the UK and Germany. The latter is highly regarded in China, not least because of its stringent approach to professorial appointments, in which a postdoctoral thesis, known as a habilitation, is often a prerequisite. Chinese academics, aware that the UK lacks such requirements, will often look for equivalents, such as an impressive record of publication, especially in highly ranked international journals. But it is here that the shortcomings of some UK senior managers appear most apparent.
Another – and in many ways equally important – point of comparison is international experience. The people making these judgements in China have often lived and been trained outside their country of origin. Thus they are often surprised to learn that a particular UK senior manager has not only been wholly trained in the UK, but has never held a position of responsibility overseas. Even when UK academics work in renowned international cities such as London, they are seen as somewhat provincial for failing to venture very far from their place of birth. The frequent lack of a second language compounds this impression.
Finally, that UK universities often seem to view student recruitment as a one-way street is mildly off-putting. This is not only because Chinese academics have often been students abroad themselves, but also because they see their culture as attractive and special – and know that other Western countries are more aware of the virtues of two-way student exchange.
China is by no means unique in this respect. Only recently I was introduced with considerable pride to the first Western PhD graduate of the Indonesian University of Udayana in Bali. Western universities that fail to understand and respect such sensibilities risk missing out on the institutional partnerships that are likely to be crucial to their success in the so-called Asian Century.
Michael Hitchcock is professor in cultural policy and tourism and a member of the Asia Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London. He was dean of the Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Management and a member of the senior executive committee at the Macau University of Science and Technology between 2012 and 2014, and he continues to be a visiting professor there.