Sector link-ups must mind the cultural gap

Research reveals positives and pitfalls for Sino-UK university joint ventures. John Morgan reports

August 12, 2010

Chinese and UK universities wanting to forge successful partnerships must negotiate the cultural gap between collectivist and individualist societies, and ensure that their places in the world university rankings are similar.

Those are among the messages from research by Xiaoqing Jade Li, former director of Beijing Union University's international office.

Dr Li completed a PhD thesis at Royal Holloway, University of London, research that she believes is the first to look at success factors - and barriers to success - in Sino-UK higher education partnerships.

She interviewed senior staff from universities in both countries - including vice-chancellors and presidents - involved in 10 partnerships.

Among the barriers were an emphasis on financial motives rather than the "quality and reputation of the alliance", and the UK's visa policy.

Success factors included the existence of a "champion" (a member of staff with a personal link to the partner university) and an emphasis on maintaining "uniqueness and excellence" rather than "localisation".

The universities of Liverpool and Nottingham have both set up joint-venture campuses to offer their degrees in China.

Dr Li, now a lecturer at Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University, looked at three types of partnership: joint-venture campuses; UK degrees taught entirely at Chinese universities; and courses split between British and Chinese institutions.

Selecting a similarly ranked partner was a key factor in the formation phase, Dr Li said. She cited the example of a partnership between a lower-ranked UK university and a higher-ranked Chinese institution. The Chinese students "get a degree that is lower quality than the Chinese university's, and their parents are not satisfied with this", she said. "I'm afraid that the partnership will not go on too long."

On the key factor of cultural differences, Dr Li cited the Chinese attachment to rote learning, contrasting this with the "independent learning" favoured in the UK.

She also said that China's "collective and long-term" culture was "really different from UK culture, which (involves) employers and employees respecting each other - they have equal positions to discuss and share their ideas".

Times Higher Education reported this year that Liverpool and Nottingham's Chinese ventures must enforce laws banning the distribution of anti-government material and allow the Communist Party's Youth League to be active on campus.

Dr Li has had a paper based on part of her research accepted by the Asia Pacific Business Review journal, and hopes to conduct further study in the area.

"American universities are also setting up collaborations with Chinese universities," she said. "They don't have a joint-venture campus, but they set up schools under a university. I want to investigate this and compare American universities' strategies in entering China with the UK's and Australia's."

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