The Belt and Road Initiative, the multibillion-pound development strategy aimed at connecting Chinese markets with neighbouring countries, Africa and Europe, is allowing Asian universities to reassert themselves in the modern world, a conference heard.
Susan Robertson, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, said that China had historically been left out of partnership agreements and had been a “taker” of the Western model of a university.
But as the Belt and Road programme, launched in 2013, continued to pour money into partnerships along the old Silk Road route, a “new world of higher education” was being ushered in, Professor Robertson told Times Higher Education’s Research Excellence Summit: Eurasia.
“Is this a century of Asian awakening? Most certainly it is China declaring that it will no longer suffer what it called the ‘century of humiliation’,” Professor Robertson told attendees at Kazan Federal University.
“What is interesting is that, in the West, people are more or less completely unaware of these initiatives going on, there has been a sense in the past that the West will always drive the development model,” she continued. “However, looking from Europe across central Asia right through to China, many universities are now looking not to Europe but to China for partnerships and potential collaborations.”
Investment under the Belt and Road Initiative has mainly focused on infrastructure, such as roads, ports and railways, but it has also led to the creation of two university alliances that aim to increase cooperation between Chinese universities and the 100-plus institutions along the trading routes.
Chinese universities have set up branch campuses as part of the scheme, such as Xiamen University’s Malaysian outpost, while the Belt and Road plan also envisages the creation of 10,000 student scholarships.
There are challenges, however, of this “re-mooring” of higher education in the modern world, Professor Robertson told THE, particularly relating to academic freedom in China.
Experts have warned that growing Chinese influence could result in global academic leaders seeking to appease the country’s Communist Party: for example, Cambridge University Press came under fire last summer for briefly removing hundreds of papers and book reviews from the online version of one of its journals in China after a government agency threatened to block access to the website.
“The way [that] Chinese universities have been organised internally in the past is to have a lot less academic freedom. The party is often quite present in universities there, but we know separating and letting institutions have a degree of autonomy is important historically,” Professor Robertson said.
“You don’t get the best science – or social science even – if the state and the university are too closely aligned,” she added.