UK universities are exploring fresh opportunities to open campuses in China, amid signs that the country may not have closed the door on further foreign higher education ventures, as previously believed.
Imperial College, London, is in talks with officials in Pudong, Shanghai's finance and business centre, over plans to open a campus there. The venture may herald the beginning of a "second wave" of incursions into China. Another London university is understood to be in an advanced stage of negotiations for a campus in Jiangxi province.
David Willetts, the Conservatives' Shadow Higher Education Minister, was instrumental in brokering the Imperial deal after meeting the mayor of Pudong, who announced plans to attract a foreign university with a strong record in science. Mr Willetts said Shanghai's "free enterprise zone" had more freedom in such ventures than other regions.
It was thought that China's Ministry of Education had called a halt to foreign campuses - saying in April that "in principle", no further applications should be accepted before the end of 2008.
But Andrew Halper, of education law firm Eversheds, told a seminar held by higher education think-tank Agora earlier this month: "This does not mean there will be no more foreign campuses in China in the immediate future. The circular is silent on the handling of applications already filed, and 'in principle' leaves scope for flexibility."
Even without legislative discouragement, universities have been reluctant to take the financial risk of establishing actual campuses in China. Most have preferred to set up partnerships in which they oversee the academic side while financial risk and capital costs are borne by overseas organisations.
Many are watching the progress of Nottingham University, whose fully branded satellite campus opened in Ningbo in February 2006 (see box), and Liverpool, which last year set up a new university with Xi'an Jiaotong University. Unlike Nottingham, Liverpool has not invested any capital in the project. Funding was provided by the university's US partner, Laureate Education.
While Liverpool vice-chancellor Drummond Bone hopes that students from the new institution will come to Liverpool to complete their degrees, or as postgraduates, he is not expecting to make money from the venture. "The long term vision is that it will be a free-standing, separate university, not a campus," he said. "In future it may choose to float free."
The sector is also showing renewed interest in other parts of Asia - and vice versa. The Times Higher understands that the Economic Development Board of Singapore has approached several British universities to discuss collaboration. Warwick University is hoping to re-establish links with the country two years after it abandoned plans for a campus there, on the grounds of cost and restrictions to academic freedom.
Warwick has appointed Colin Blakemore, who leaves his job as chief executive of the Medical Research Council this month, as professor of neuroscience with a brief to establish a collaboration with Singapore. The Times Higher understands that the university has discussed the goal of establishing a Warwick Institute for Neuroscience in Singapore, but a spokesman said such a formal link was "a long way off".
A further group of three or four British universities is meeting in October to discuss a joint campus in Singapore.
However, both sides are likely to be cautious in their dealings. Australia's University of New South Wales opened a Singapore campus in 2007, but it closed two months later after anticipated student numbers did not materialise.
Agora director Anna Fazackerley said: "Universities should be careful not to allow their heads to be turned too quickly by offers of land overseas. A campus is a huge and risky commitment - not least because your senior management team will spend much of their time overseas."