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NYU Shanghai as a study in globalisation

New York University Shanghai is the first of a number of joint ventures that could help transform the mainland's lumbering education system

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 4:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 2013, 2:53pm

The founding chancellor of New York University Shanghai, Yu Lizhong, likens the joint venture between New York University and East China Normal University to a couple expecting a child.

He said it had been love at first sight for both, followed by the honeymoon, and they were now facing the reality of whether they could produce a world-class university and help nurture reform of the mainland's clumsy education system.

"Higher education in China has come such a long way that it's no longer about having another school to accommodate more students, but about whether we can produce one of the best schools in the world to set an example for the rest in China," Yu said. "So it's of little significance if we just founded another mediocre university."

Yu, 64, said NYU Shanghai would try to set itself apart from most mainland universities with a strong focus on students' needs and the establishment of a "scientific community" to give academics and professors a bigger say in school management. It will be run by a board of directors rather than an in-house Communist Party committee, freeing it from much of the bureaucratic meddling that besets  mainland tertiary education.

Yu said it would admit 300 students, including 150 from overseas - two-thirds of them American - in its first intake later this year.

Nearly 2,000 mainland students applied during its recruitment period, even though it limited first-year recruitment to just 10 mainland regions.

It has issued conditional offers to 150 of these, with offers to several hundred others pending their performance in national university entrance exams, or gaokao, next month. 

While the mainland students will still be required to sit the gaokao, they will also be appraised on their academic performance and community service and  in one-on-one interviews, in line with recruitment procedures at Western universities.

NYU Shanghai is the mainland's first joint-venture university involving an American university. Another, a partnership between Duke University and Wuhan University, will open a campus in Kunshan, Jiangsu, next year.

Meanwhile, the Chinese University of Hong Kong plans to open a campus in Shenzhen in co-operation with Shenzhen University next year.

The number of joint-venture universities is rising as part of the mainland's pledge to open up the service industry, including higher education, to foreign competitors.

Chinese University vice-chancellor Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu  said cultivating creativity and innovation would be the main focuses of the new university.

"We also hope to play a role in promoting equal access to quality teaching by admitting students not only from prestigious schools in places like Beijing and Shanghai, but also those from impoverished areas," he said.

Sung said Chinese University would oversee the academic side of the new school, with Shenzhen University and Shenzhen's city government responsible for administrative affairs and financing, providing 100 hectares of land and campus construction.

While the Shenzhen government will provide funding of 20,000 yuan (HK$25,000) per student for each of the university's first five years, Sung said its long-term sustainability was one of his biggest concerns.

He said the campus would be academically and financially independent and feature interdisciplinary subjects like urbanisation, innovative media and international financing, which would be useful for the development of the mainland and, more specifically, the Pearl River Delta region.

In contrast with other joint-venture universities, students will be taught in Putonghua and English to make the institution more accessible to local and international students.

Yu, who previously served as president of East China Normal University, said international co-operation was particularly important for mainland universities because it could help them reflect on the way they were run and how they measured up to international standards.

East China University has served as a study-away site for New York University since 2006, with about 350  NYU students studying at its campus each year.
Jeffrey Lehman, vice-chancellor of NYU Shanghai, said it was part of NYU's global network university initiative. NYU opened its first campus outside the United States in Abu Dhabi in 2010.

He said having a doorway in Shanghai made enormous sense because it drove "the country's economy and cultural life".

On top of the chance to learn Putonghua and become familiar with China, Lehman said it was exciting for international students to be able to receive such an education in China because they all recognised that what had been happening in China since the 1980s was changing the world.

"For domestic students it's all about how classes are taught; we'll teach them in a way in which they're required to be active learners," he said. "They will be pushed to take risks in the classroom, pushed to speak up and to say things that are not absolutely certain or correct, to understand that it's OK to make mistakes."

Lehman said NYU Shanghai would have no more than 2,000 students, a tenth  of the number at  NYU in New York.

There are also concerns among regulators over the political and ideological implications of the presence of overseas universities in China

Cheng Fangping, a Renmin University professor who specialises in education studies, said the rising number of joint-venture colleges, which were subjected to strict administrative approval from the Ministry of Education, indicated the high demand for quality teaching on the mainland against the backdrop of globalisation.

But he said regulators were unlikely to give overseas universities unfettered access to the mainland market because its own universities were far less competitive than those in developed countries.

"There are also concerns among regulators over the political and ideological implications of the presence of overseas universities in China," he added.

Yu said joint-venture universities like NYU Shanghai were attractive to many mainland students and their parents because they were much cheaper than studying overseas.

Graduates would also receive two diplomas, one from NYU and one from East China Normal University.

But he also admitted that there were many challenges and uncertainties in a culturally, politically and ideologically different teaching environment, which would demand a lot of wisdom and frank communication.

For example, East China Normal University and NYU differed over whether the Shanghai campus was a mainland university or a portal university for NYU, as officials from the American university had promoted it overseas.

He said NYU had to understand that it was absurd to regard NYU Shanghai as an American university.

Its first intake will not yet be able to use its 15-storey campus in Shanghai's Lujiazui financial district because construction is a year behind schedule.

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