China moves to halt universities’ eastern branch campus rush

Ministry of Education says it does not ‘support or encourage’ institutions setting up outposts beyond their home province

September 15, 2021
Person looks at a model of Sydney's central business district in central Sydney under a glass floor as a metaphor for China moves to halt universities’ eastern branch campus rush
Source: Alamy

China has barred its universities from operating branch campuses across provincial borders as it attempts to address regional inequality in education resources.

The Ministry of Education did not “support or encourage” higher education institutions running branch campuses in provinces other than the one they are based in, it said in a statement on the country’s five-year plan.

The ministry had expressed its distaste for domestic branch campuses as long as four years ago, and this time it specifically highlighted that for universities in the country’s western and central areas, “no more applications to build trans-provincial branch campuses will be approved in principle”. The document also claims that existing branch campuses “will be cleaned up and regulated smoothly and orderly”.

The policy reflects concerns that universities from China’s poorer provinces have been setting up branch campuses in the country’s prosperous east, a move that may offer benefits to the institutions involved but gives scant returns to their underdeveloped home regions.

“Graduates [of these institutions] are very likely to stay in the east, instead of contributing to the west,” Zhou Guangli, professor of education and chief executive of the Evaluation Research Centre at Renmin University of China, told local media. He said western China needed to prioritise skills development locally.

Liu Xiao, an associate professor in the department of education management at East China Normal University who has researched the issue, said successful branch campuses could be beneficial. “The university could get new room for development with the city’s geographic advantage, while the city can introduce quality higher education resources,” she said.

However, she acknowledged that the proliferation of campuses could widen the gap in resources between different regions. “Some universities have even shifted their priorities, and the functions of their main campus have gradually weakened and shrunk,” she said.

One study of 166 research institutes, branch campuses, graduate schools and affiliated hospitals created up to April 2020 by 53 universities participating in the Double First Class excellence initiative found that 45 per cent were located in three eastern cities: Shenzhen (38), Suzhou (20) and Qingdao (17). Meanwhile, only five universities built institutes or campuses in the west.

But Liu Wan-Hsin, a senior researcher at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, said the rush to the east did not necessarily increase regional inequality.

“It strongly depends on the relationship between the investing academic institutions in the western areas and their branches in the eastern areas. If setting up branches in eastern China can help gain better access to financial resources through joint projects, to up-to-date knowledge and to talent, then it may actually benefit students in western China,” she said.

Universities in western China needed more funding, Dr Liu said, but it was “also an issue of improving the quality of educational management, enhancing the quality of advanced scientific research and teaching on site and increasing locational competitiveness in attracting businesses, talents and overall resources”.

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