China takes first steps into global higher education with Laos campus

Laos is the first step in China's international expansion of higher education, but some see the new approach as risky and unnecessary

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 12:24am


In the capital of Laos, two dozen students who see their future in trade ties with neighbouring China spent their school year attending Putonghua classes in a no-frills, rented room.

It's the start of China's first, and almost certainly not its last, university campus abroad, with a notable focus on Asia.

This is … about increasing soft power

"There are a lot of companies in Laos that are from China," said 19-year-old Palamy Siphandone. She said she chose the Soochow University branch campus after hearing it would offer scholarships to students with high scores.

"If I can speak Chinese, I get more opportunities to work with them," she said in a telephone interview during a trip to the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou - the home city of Soochow University.

China so far has been on the receiving end of the globalisation of education, with Western institutions rushing to China to set up shop. Now it's stepping out.

In addition to the emerging Laos campus, there are plans for what may become one of the world's largest overseas branch campuses in Malaysia and an agreement by a Chinese university to explore a joint campus with a British university in London.

"The Chinese government and its universities have been very ambitious in the reform and internationalisation of Chinese higher education," said Mary Gallagher, director of the Centre of Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan in the US.

"This is partly about increasing China's soft power, increasing the number of people who study the Chinese language and are knowledgeable about China from the Chinese perspective."

Chinese universities have historically offered language lessons in foreign countries but usually to serve the overseas Chinese population. In recent years, the Chinese government has set up Confucius Institutes around the globe to promote Chinese culture and language.

But fully fledged campuses that can confer degrees are a new experiment. China's Education Ministry declined a request for an interview on the issue.

The Laos branch of Soochow University, based in Vientiane, is now looking to raise money for a fully fledged campus of 5,000 students, university official Chen Mei said. "The national policy wants us to go out, as the internationalisation of education comes with the globalisation of economy," she said.

The Laos campus started as part of an economic development zone between Laos and Chinese governments, then continued after the larger project fell through.

Xiamen University, based in eastern Fujian province , announced plans early this year to open a branch in Malaysia by 2015 and have annual enrolment of 10,000 by 2020. In May, Zhejiang University and Imperial College London signed an agreement to explore options for a joint campus.

Philip Altbach, an expert on international higher education at Boston College, warns that Chinese universities might be venturing out too soon.

"I think that China's top universities have sufficient work to do at home that they do not need to expand into the risky and often expensive world of branch campuses outside of China," Altbach wrote in an e-mail. "China's global influence and prestige in higher education is best served by strengthening its universities at home and offering a 'world class' education to Chinese students and expanded numbers of overseas students."

In Malaysia, where British universities have expanded in recent years, the plans by Xiamen University have been lauded by the government, with Prime Minister Najib Razak calling it historic. The branch campus will likely attract many among Malaysia's large ethnic Chinese minority for courses that will range from economics to chemical engineering and Chinese literature.

Ethnic Chinese comprise more than one-fifth of Malaysia's 29 million people, and some have complained their children face difficulties securing places in Malaysian state-backed universities because of policies that favour the ethnic Malay majority.

Xiamen has roots in the country, in a sense: The university was founded in 1921 by Tan Kah Kee, a business tycoon who made his fortune in Southeast Asia, including what is now Malaysia.