When Lizhong Yu arrived at the University of Liverpool to begin his PhD studies in 1985, he was one of only eight Chinese students on campus.
Back on Merseyside three decades later for the recent European Association for International Education (EAIE) conference, Yu, now chancellor of New York University Shanghai, reflects on there now being some 3,000 Chinese students in the city.
But Yu, a former president of both Shanghai Normal University and East China Normal University (ECNU), believes that those students in Liverpool – part of some 90,000 Chinese students in the UK – and others studying outside their home country can still profit from the sort of life-changing experience that he enjoyed just over 30 years ago.
“My experience in Liverpool changed my vision of the world,” explained Yu, an expert in sustainable development who has also held three of the most prestigious administrative posts in the world’s largest city (Shanghai, with 24 million people, is roughly three times larger than London).
“Based on my own experiences I would always encourage students to go abroad if they have the chance and to get in touch with people who appear completely different to them, but [who], they will realise, share so much in common,” Yu said in a Times Higher Education interview.
Yu is not, however, blind to some of the difficulties faced by students on international placements.
“It can be very difficult to transfer credits between educational systems, which can require students to pick up extra classes in university to make up the ground lost,” he said.
“Every one of our students in Shanghai has been abroad – we require them to do at least one semester abroad, but they normally spend two or even three overseas,” he said.
“They might also study in Paris or London over the summer, and several of our students were based at our centre near the British Museum very recently,” he added.
Having NYU in Shanghai – the first time a US university has been based on Chinese soil thanks to its link-up with ECNU – has also helped to create a unique, highly international learning experience – with the institution’s first 300 students, who enrolled in 2013, set to graduate in summer 2017.
“Our students come from 70 different countries, five different continents, with about half Chinese and half international,” Yu said of his current 1,200-strong student body.
“Developing this multicultural environment…is bringing an entirely new model of higher education to China,” he added.
The Sino-US institution has helped to introduce the idea of the liberal arts education into Chinese higher education at a far more advanced level than previously attempted, Yu argued.
“A number of Chinese universities have tried to introduce liberal arts education, but they find it very difficult,” he said of the ingrained tendency towards learning by rote.
“We are not just teaching a list of things – we are developing critical thinking and asking students to learn very broadly,” he added.
Importing elements of the Western higher education model has also helped research to thrive at the new institution, which has expertise in everything from neuroscience and mathematics to computational chemistry and finance, in addition to more equitable research structures, Yu noted.
“All academics, whether senior or junior, are independent researchers in their own right – it’s not a case of senior professors leading and junior staff working in their team,” he said.
“NYU Shanghai is bringing new possibilities to students and staff who want a global experience.”