China is opening its doors wider to foreign partners

Regulation of international branch campuses can be onerous, but China has begun to show flexibility in areas of national strategy, says Hongqing Yang

November 22, 2020
An open door at the Temple of Heaven, China
Source: iStock

Before the pandemic, there was a sense that international branch campuses (IBCs) had gone out of fashion. The difficulty of establishing them and the low revenues that they typically yield had seen their growth plateau.

But with international education severely hit by Covid-19, educating overseas students in their own countries suddenly looks more attractive again.

That is particularly true of China, the West’s biggest source of international students. There are fears that the pandemic may have made its young people less confident about venturing abroad – particularly to countries that have struggled to control the spread of the virus.

Moreover, there are signs that China is also keen to attract more IBCs. Since opening its doors to “Sino-foreign cooperative schools” after its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, it has become one of the largest host countries of IBCs. As of June, there were 131 IBCs in China – split between nine stand-alone universities with independent legal status and more than 100 academic units within existing Chinese universities. However, even that number is arguably quite low given China’s enormous number of students.

The University of Nottingham opened the first British IBC in China in 2004 – one of 26 now established – but China’s very different system is not easy to navigate. The country closely guards its educational sovereignty and the Ministry of Education enforces protocols on all aspects of running IBCs, including their establishment, governance, academic processes, financial arrangements and how they may be changed or closed.

Most significantly, a foreign university must partner with a Chinese university to establish an IBC, and Chinese members must constitute at least half the board. The president or principal administrator must also have Chinese nationality and live within Chinese territory, and tuition fees must be approved by the Chinese authorities.

On the academic side, at least a third of all modules, and of core modules, should be provided by the foreign partner. A third of the core modules should also be taught by faculty from the foreign partner, and all IBCs must offer modules on China’s constitution, laws, ethics of citizenship and basic facts about the nation. The ministry also regulates the quality and disciplinary distribution of courses, with an eye to China’s social and economic needs.

Permission for IBCs to be established is informed by national strategy. For example, the recently issued Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area promotes cooperation and development in education, with four Hong Kong institutions due to establish new campuses on the mainland.

Moreover, the general rules can be bent when there is a specific imperative to do so. For instance, overseas engineering universities, vocational colleges and high-level enterprises are being permitted to open pilot IBCs in the special economic zone of Hainan province without enlisting a Chinese partner. Germany’s Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences is the first university to sign an agreement with Hainan’s provincial government.

Moreover, in practice, all IBCs – particularly those with independent legal personhood – have some privileges (even if these are not guaranteed by the regulations). For example, the curricula of the four compulsory ideological and political modules are developed and taught as Chinese culture courses in some IBCs, while it is impossible for other Chinese public and private universities to significantly change the curriculum. The nine independent IBCs also have virtual private networks (VPNs) on campus to ensure that their faculty and students can access the worldwide web.

And while military training is compulsory in all Chinese public and private universities, Zhejiang province’s Department of Education exempts the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus and Wenzhou-Kean University, both located in the province.

The regulatory framework around IBCs shows that educational sovereignty is China’s top priority and that it prefers to import high-quality programmes in partnership with high-ranking overseas universities. But the recent flexibility shown in areas of national strategy indicates that the country wants to open its doors wider to foreign partners. Western universities that are seriously committed to educating Chinese students should take note.

Hongqing Yang is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nottingham’s China campus. He has worked in three international branch campuses in China.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: China opening doors wider

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