Project 211

A world of learning

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2011, 12:00am


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In describing how fierce the competition for students and teachers has become as a result of more universities establishing a presence on the mainland, one campus president doesn't mince words.

'We've become a victim of our own success,' said Professor Ng Ching-fai, president of United International College (UIC).

A partnership between Baptist University in Hong Kong and Beijing Normal University, UIC started off six years ago as a little-known facility in Zhuhai scrambling for recruitment, but Ng said it was now capable of competing with some of the mainland's most prestigious universities for the best students.

Inspired by the success of UIC and several other partnership universities, Ng, a chemistry professor who worked at Baptist University for 25 years, including nine years as its president, said both the central government and regional administrations were launching more joint-venture universities to help overhaul the nation's sprawling academic system.

The nationwide effort is in particular targeting higher-learning institutions, but it has been criticised for diminishing the quality of teaching and for putting rote learning ahead of cultivating creativity.

'It would be wrong to say we're not worried about competition,' Ng said. He expects UIC to lose some of its experienced teaching staff. 'However, we're better positioned as a liberal arts college; we're confident of [our future] as long as we can deliver what we've promised.' UIC, which opened in 2005, was built within Beijing Normal University's Zhuhai campus in Guangdong with a 150 million yuan loan from Baptist University. UIC was allowed to be set up along with several other joint-venture colleges as part of Beijing's promise to open up the education sector after it joined the World Trade Organisation in December 2001.

There has since been a push among regional governments for such partnerships, and world-renowned universities are looking to China to improve their competitiveness. In Guangdong, the provincial government plans to set up three to five joint-venture colleges via co-operation with overseas universities in the next 10 years.

New York University, billed as the first global network university, will open a campus in Shanghai in September 2013 via a partnership with East China Normal University and the Shanghai municipal government. Dr John Sexton, president of New York University, said: 'Our joint effort to create NYU Shanghai emerges out of a common belief in the indispensable value of higher education and in the special opportunities that can be created when the world's greatest cities join forces.'

Such partnership schools are allowed to adopt a Western-style, board-of-directors management system, breaking ranks with most mainland universities, which are under the leadership of a Communist Party committee but criticised for being run like a bureaucracy.

Information from the 2011 Blue Book of Education shows that there are more than 400 partnership projects for undergraduate teaching, including more than a dozen joint campuses on the mainland, and most are for profit.

Xi Youmin, executive president of Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, a partnership between Chinese and British universities, said the interest in joint-venture universities would nurture a favourable environment for his university to grow and for reform of the tertiary education system.

However, he said some of the people behind the projects, either mainland university officials or regional bureaucrats, had little idea how they were going to make such partnerships work in their regions.

Xi said he had received several delegations, including representatives from Duke University in the United States and Australia's Monash University, who were keen on partnership projects, but many of them either underestimated the difficulties or got too carried away by government promises.

'How long can the government keep its promises [for funding], and what if the incumbent administration leaves office next year?' he said. 'Also, have they thought about whether such partnership projects can flourish in particular areas?'

He said Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University was founded five years ago in affluent Suzhou, Jiangsu province, instead of in Xian where its parent university is, because support from the Suzhou government was crucial to the project's success.

As to the other partner, Liverpool University, Xi said its partnership with Xian Jiaotong University was part of Liverpool's push to become a globalised university to counter stagnancy and even shrinkage in its domestic market, as well as to establish a presence in China.

However, he warned that such partnerships were unlikely to become mainstream on the mainland, as authorities were wary of their ideological implications, particularly in the wake of recent upheavals in African countries.

Professor Steven Swartz, vice chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, said no sector was more globalised than the education sector. However, he would rather work with distinguished universities than compete with them to stay competitive.

A good example of that, he said, was the co-operation with Beijing's Tsinghua University on an applied finance course, in which students could enrol from both Tsinghua and Macquarie and graduate with a joint degree.

UIC's Ng describes the launch of such new colleges as a threat. Still, he warns that it has never been easy to operate a joint-venture university on the mainland, particularly if it has yet to get funding from the government, as was the case with UIC.

He said the college had been cited for not operating from self-owned premises, a prerequisite for an undergraduate college, and the local price regulators also initially refused to approve its tuition fees when the college opened because the regulators thought 32,000 yuan a year was too much.

'As a college with no financial support from the government, how much I charge students should be decided by the market,' Ng said. 'But we couldn't do anything about it for two years - until they began to appreciate' what was being done at the campus.