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OBHE report favours 'nimble' university centres over IBCs in China

China may no longer be a land as fertile for establishing international branch campuses as it once was, but institutions can gain strong, on the ground engagement through university centres, the report argues.
February 4 2016
3 Min Read

China may no longer be a land as fertile for establishing international branch campuses as it once was according to a report released by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

However, universities can still benefit from having an on the ground presence in the country in the form of university centres which can accommodate a number of academic activities and act as a base for engagement with the local community, it states.

“I have met few people who are enthused by a full-on joint venture campus”

The report also underlines opportunities for foreign liberal arts providers as Chinese institutions have not yet mastered how to deliver the broad, humanistic education that is gaining interest in China.

Andrew Scott Conning, the report’s author and presidential fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the incentives that existed in favour of setting up international branch campuses in China previously, are much less now.

“Universities are intent of finding ways to get more engaged in China but, I have met few people who are enthused by a full-on joint venture campus,” he said.

“The numbers of university aged students in China is going to go down,” he continued. “You have that factor and also as the economy grows, even though it’s slowing a bit, more families will be able to send their children abroad.”

The economic slowdown also means that support from municipal and provencial governments is not as readily available, added Conning. “You’re just not going to get all the land and resources that were rolled out five years ago.”

In the report, Conning outlines four models for engagement in China: liaison offices, university centres, focussed joint-ventures (usually a degree programme or research institute managed by a Chinese partner) and full-scale joint venture campuses.

Currently there are several full-scale joint venture campuses in China where the foreign university provides expertise on how to structure and administer a research university in exchange for land, facilities, and local administrative staffing.

They include the University of Nottingham Ningbo ChinaXi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool UniversityNew York University ShanghaiDuke Kunshan UniversityWenzhou Kean University.

The report explores the legal risks, cultural differences, academic freedom constraints and recruitment challenges that this operating model faces in China and ultimately concludes that institutions can increase engagement with China as effectively with a university centre.

These bases allow the foreign institution to maintain independence and flexibility, the report argues. Universities can host training programmes, academic gatherings and consultations at the centres, acting as a point of contact for the entire institution rather than each department having a presence in the country.

“A centre can be run as an independent entity, without the need to enter into a joint venture”

“Like a liaison office, a centre can be run as an independent entity, without the need to enter into a joint venture,” the report says. “If run independently, a centre is relatively easy to restructure, relocate or close, should conditions change or the venture prove unsuccessful.”

Successful examples mentioned in the report include the Stanford Center at Peking University, the University of Chicago Center and the Columbia Global Center in Beijing.

Speaking with The PIE News, Conning highlighted Harvard’s funding initiative for joint research projects, the Global Institute, as a way for universities to extend their presence in China. The project, launched last October with support from the Beijing-based Wanda Group, will operate from Harvard Center in Shanghai.

“It’s sort of the like the un-campus, you don’t have to recruit students or have a campus and it’s not based on a joint venture. It’s much more nimble,” he said.

Beyond operational models, the report notes there is a steady demand for a liberal arts education among Chinese parents and students, giving western providers a reason to be optimisitic.

“The rebirth of broad, humanistic education in China represents a major national politico-cultural initiative, and universities are eagerly experimenting with the curriculum and pedagogy of the liberal arts model,” the report states, adding, “Given that the liberal arts model is one that Chinese universities have not yet mastered, there may be opportunities for foreign universities in this area.

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