UCA campus aims to enhance China’s creativity drive

‘Freedom of speech is a question of interpretation,’ says v-c who maintains art studio in Beijing

February 28, 2020
Xiamen University

While many UK universities have launched joint projects in China, the new campus of the University for the Creative Arts in Xiamen will be the first spearheaded by a non-Western vice-chancellor with years of working experience in the country.

Bashir Makhoul became the first Palestinian academic to head a British university when he was appointed vice-chancellor of UCA, whose UK campuses are spread across Kent and Surrey, in 2017. He is also a professional artist who maintains a studio in Beijing and continues to exhibit at museums there. His background comes through clearly in his views on creativity and artistic freedom, which are markedly different from those of many Western administrators.

“I have a very strong connection with Chinese culture, particularly art and design – and my experience informs my approach,” he told Times Higher Education.

One of his first tasks as UCA vice-chancellor was to propose its first overseas campus, in partnership with Xiamen University (XMU), where he was appointed as a visiting professor about a decade ago.

Some cultural institutions, such as the famed Juilliard School conservatory in New York, have been proactive in setting up China campuses to take advantage of a boom in arts education. However, academic freedom has been a sticking point in other Sino-Western partnerships. In October 2019, the US-based Wesleyan University pulled back from a potentially lucrative partnership with a Chinese film studio over academic freedom concerns.

When asked about freedom of expression, Professor Makhoul said that it was a topic he preferred to approach directly with his partners.

“When we began the conversation with Xiamen University, we took up a number of issues that might occur. This sense of ‘freedom of speech’, as we describe it in the West, came up and we discussed it,” he said.  

“Freedom of speech is a question of interpretation, and every country interprets it in a different way. We can’t make everyone look and think the same. There’s not only one formula to freedom.”

The Institute of Creativity and Innovation at XMU, to be located in the mid-sized city of Xiamen on China’s southeast coast, will be Professor Makhoul’s third such project. Previously, he had played prominent roles in setting up the University of Southampton’s collaboration with Dalian Polytechnic University and the Birmingham Institute of Fashion and Creative Art, a partnership between Birmingham City University and Wuhan Textile University.

Professor Makhoul said that, despite the coronavirus epidemic, the institute in Xiamen is on track to start its inaugural term this September – although there may be slight delays depending on the status of the outbreak, he added. About 300 undergraduates are expected to enrol in programmes in digital media technology, visual communication design, advertising and environmental design.

The introduction of a UK-run arts institute at XMU – a university best known for its science, engineering and business schools – points to a relatively new drive towards interdisciplinarity in China, as well as the need to inject art, design and creativity into STEM and other fields.

“In the recent past, creativity wasn’t engaged in the same way that it was in the West. It wasn’t as central to development,” Professor Makhoul said.

Zhang Rong, the XMU president who has worked closely on this project, has spoken before on the importance of universities strengthening their capabilities in innovation, culture, creativity and international exchanges, in comments made on the sidelines of the 2018 National People’s Congress.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, also addressed the need for creativity while addressing the country’s main science and engineering academies that year.

“Xi Jinping’s announcement was that innovation and creativity were central to the economy and the people. That resonates,” Professor Makhoul said. “Creativity and innovation are infused in everything we do, whether it is in engineering or law. Without creativity, none of those fields can improve or engage in problem solving.”

Professor Makhoul’s own background is in fine art, a field he has seen take off in China, both academically and commercially. “I’ve seen the speed of development in the cultural arena, particularly in the arts,” he said.

The boom in arts education is tied to the larger development of China’s cultural industries. For example, the number of museums in China has increased sevenfold from about 350 in the late 1970s to more than 5,000 today.

Professor Makhoul saw the new investment – both in cultural institutions and in arts education – as part of a plan to promote China’s soft power to the world.  

“Without a doubt, they really want to make a difference to the image of China, by emphasising a strong heritage that goes back [many] years,” he said. “Culture doesn’t come out of nothing.”


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