UK university staff have cited the lack of transparency around Chinese transnational education (TNE) legislation as one of the main barriers halting higher education partnerships between the two countries.
In 2014, China’s Ministry of Education tightened laws on Sino-foreign joint programmes in a bid to improve the quality of such ventures.
The government reportedly introduced new regulations stipulating that foreign universities already offering approved joint degrees with Chinese institutions would be able to apply for a new venture only after the first student cohort from their current programme had graduated.
However, some of the UK delegates at the British Council’s Workshop on Quality Assurance for UK-China Transnational Education in Beijing on 18 March said that the regulations were not clear.
One participant from a UK university said they had travelled to Beijing for the conference to get “first-hand information” on the rules from the Chinese Ministry of Education because their institution was “really desperate” to ensure that it did things “by the book”.
The comments were made in a 90-minute breakout session on partnership building, which was attended by academics and professional staff from universities in the UK and China.
In a summary speech after the discussion, Nigel Healey, pro vice-chancellor (international) at Nottingham Trent University and co-chair of the session, said that “a lot of people in the room felt it was not very transparent what the rules were”.
“Our institution’s been awarded a second [joint-degree licence] only six months after being awarded the first one,” he said.
He added that some Chinese participants had suggested that “the ministry doesn’t really want the rules to be transparent”.
“There’s a degree of judgement being exercised by the ministry, and so there is a purpose to not having very explicit rules,” he said.
The participants also noted that while a “top-down” approach is vital for establishing partnerships for both UK and Chinese institutions, collaborations driven by academics are more important at British institutions than they are at Chinese ones.
“For UK partners perhaps, bottom-up [commitment] is slightly more important because British institutions are less hierarchical,” Professor Healey said. “Simply a president signing that something will happen doesn’t make it so if the academics in that department don’t get behind it.”
Dewi Knight, senior education adviser, China, at the British Council, said that the workshop, which was part of the organisation’s first UK-China Education Policy Week (14 to 20 March), provided a “comprehensive opportunity for UK and China representatives to share each other’s expectations and experiences in setting up transnational education programmes”.
He added that the Beijing Statement – principles established by organisations in the countries aimed at enhancing the quality of transnational education programmes – “already responds to many of the issues and actions raised in the workshop”.
“At the British Council, we will be working with partners in the sector and government to take forward the many positive suggestions to facilitate future cooperation,” he said.