China a ‘challenging’ partner, says German exchange scheme head

Joybrato Mukherjee says Chinese researchers ‘not always on the same page’ over IP – and looks forward to a VR-enabled ‘entirely virtual semester abroad’

January 29, 2020
Joybrato Mukherjee
Source: Ratermann

The new head of the German Academic Exchange Service (Daad) has labelled China as a “challenging partner country” and said that Chinese PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in Germany are “not always on the same page as we are” when it came to intellectual property.

Joybrato Mukherjee, president of Justus Liebig University Giessen, starts his role at Daad amid a backlash in a number of Western countries against perceived Chinese influence over research institutions. In the US, for example, Chinese researchers have been ousted from projects in a crackdown on contractual violations, in the context of wider corporate concerns over IP theft.

Professor Mukherjee, who became president at the beginning of 2020, said that Germany had to “make sure” that for Chinese researchers in the country, “IP issues are accepted as they are standard in Germany”.

“We know that when it comes to IP issues, Chinese PhD students, Chinese postdocs, are not always on the same page as we are,” he said. “There have been individual cases of IP theft, not so much in universities, but there are of course cases at...other research institutions.”

Another concern for Daad – which with a network of almost 450 lecturers overseas was described by Professor Mukherjee as “the foreign ministry of the German science system” – was the privacy of German exchange students in China.

At Chinese public universities, by law, seminars and lectures were now recorded, he warned. “If you know that everything you do in the classroom is being recorded, this from a Western point of view, rightly so, raises questions,” he said.

Daad would have to “negotiate” this “issue” of classroom surveillance with its Chinese partners, he said.

Still, “for us it would not be a wise decision to no longer collaborate with China”, stressed Professor Mukherjee, who heads an organisation with a budget of more than €500 million (£422 million). “But we have to make it clear in each individual case what are the terms on which we collaborate.”

In Australia, universities have faced multiple warnings of financial over-reliance on Chinese students, while in the US there have been concerns over a lack of campus integration.

But German universities have avoided excessive recruitment from China, he argued, as a lack of tuition fees – except for in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg – meant attracting overseas students had not become a “business model”.

“We don’t have this dominating bloc of one single country,” he said. “We have 2.9 million students; 37,000 of them are Chinese students. Keep that in perspective.”

In 2016 Germany overtook France to become the world’s biggest non-English speaking host country for international students, according to Daad figures released last year. The country hit its target to recruit 350,000 students in 2018 – two years earlier than planned. This was in part down to an influx of refugees in 2015, and a broader movement of people within the European Union towards Germany’s booming economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis, explained Professor Mukherjee.

Despite this, he insisted that Germany “will never reach Anglo-American levels” of international students “simply because the systems are very different”.

Such questions about internationalisation are standard fare for a new Daad president. But with climate change now a top-two concern for the German public, Professor Mukherjee has faced new questions from journalists about Daad’s climate impact.

“We fund physical mobility, and very often physical mobility comes with a huge carbon footprint, there’s no point in denying that,” he acknowledged.

“Flight shame” has already begun to change some academics’ behaviour, he observed. “There is an increasing number of scholars that of their own volition travel only by train. They avoid international conferences on other continents,” he said.

Still, they are a “minority, and it’s still not the new normal”. Instead, he wants Daad to think about how students can have intercultural exchanges without jumping on a plane.

His dream is an “entirely virtual semester abroad”, made possible by stunning leaps forward in virtual and augmented reality.

“I always imagine a situation in 2035 or so where someone wants to spend a semester abroad in Buenos Aires. And he can do that in an entirely VR context,” he said.

The exchange student might sleep at home in Germany, get up, have breakfast, and then spend from 8am to 10pm virtually in the Argentine capital, learning and exploring. He is even hopeful that, by then, technology to create the “impression of eating food” will have emerged to allow students not just to attend seminars in VR, but also to taste local delicacies.

He stressed he was no expert on the technology, and that such a scenario “sounds more like science fiction than reality”.

But Daad’s role was to “think beyond the bounds of what is possible today”, he said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: German exchange head sees risk in China partnerships

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