Bringing the Ivy League to China

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-26 19:08:02

John Sexton (left), president of New York University (NYU) and Yu Lizhong, former president of East China Normal University and now president of NYU Shanghai, throw flowers to celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony of NYU Shanghai on March 28, 2011. Photo: CFP

John Sexton (left), president of New York University (NYU) and Yu Lizhong, former president of East China Normal University and now president of NYU Shanghai, throw flowers to celebrate the groundbreaking ceremony of NYU Shanghai on March 28, 2011. Photo: CFP

The first class of 300 students, half of whom enrolled from China, is starting their undergraduate studies at New York University (NYU) Shanghai. These students pay around $45,000 a year in tuition and mandatory fees and will graduate with a degree granted by NYU.

NYU is one of many Western universities to have set up a satellite or a branch campus in China. It is reported that Shanghai plans to attract at least two Ivy League universities by 2015, while Duke Kunshan University, located in Jiangsu Province and approved in late 2012, will start enrolling students to their graduate and professional degree programs in fall 2014.

It's a two-way street. China, especially local authorities, wants to attract elite universities; and for overseas universities, a presence in China gets them closer to new resources and opportunities. Still both the students and the schools may be concerned about issues like quality of education, academic freedom and sustainability.

Western education in China

Ma Yiben was among the first to graduate from Nottingham University Ningbo in 2008. The school, founded in Zhejiang Province in 2004, was the first international branch campus in China.

Run according to the same academic standards as their home universities, the atmosphere on these campuses is distinctly different from Chinese universities.

Ma, who majored in International Communications Studies, remembers the first class he received at Nottingham Ningbo was on plagiarism, which most Chinese students know or care little about.

Many of the core values common in world-class universities, like critical thinking and challenging authority, are new to Chinese students who have spent 12 years instilled with a respect for authority and "the correct answer."

And diversity, rather than conformity, is celebrated, says Ma, who is now doing a PhD at the University of Leeds in the UK.

Over half of graduates continue to study overseas. Having received a Western-style education in China, Ma said he was able to adapt to studying in the UK more quickly than other Chinese students.

The campuses are growing both in terms of the number of students and programs offered. Nottingham Ningbo grew from enrolling over 250 in 2004 to over 1,300 undergraduate students this year.

When Ma went to Nottingham Ningbo, he paid 50,000 yuan ($8,170) per year in tuition, now the price has gone up to 80,000 a year. Charging over 10 times the amount at a top Chinese university, these international schools are certainly not for everyone.

These campuses may be similar to universities in the West in terms of academic quality, faculty composition and learning style, but there are still very Chinese elements about them.

Every one of them has a Party committee, and students still need to take courses on Marxism and ideology.

But unlike Chinese universities, where administrative interference is considered one of the biggest problems with the education system, the Party committees in these branch campuses usually don't have a say in academic affairs, educators say.

Rapid growth

The expansion of universities overseas is a global trend. Branch campuses worldwide grew by 23 percent between 2009 and 2011 to around 200, according to a 2012 report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a UK-based independent organization. The report also counted 37 branch campuses planned to open in 2012 or 2013.

According to the report, the focus of growth for such branch campuses, defined as a degree-granting higher-education institution with physical presence in the host country, has shifted from the Gulf to Asia, especially China. It reports that China had 17 branches as of early 2012, compared to 10 in 2009.

Independent universities or branch campuses are a more recent development in China, and they are much more difficult to get approved compared to degree programs or jointly-established colleges or schools, both of which operate within a Chinese university.

In 2003, China released a set of regulations on Chinese-foreign cooperation in running colleges, after it agreed to open up its education market when joining the WTO. Foreign universities are required to have a Chinese partner, usually another higher-education institution. By this March, there were 1,780 jointly-run institutions and programs with an overseas partner.

But between 2006 and 2009, China stopped approving joint education programs after reviews found an array of problems from false advertising and degree recognition to financing irregularities. The process has since resumed and attracting first-class education resources from overseas has been written into the national 10-Year Plan for education.

Cooperation & investments

Local governments are usually an important force in initiating and backing up such cooperation, so as to attract certain types of talents to support local development.

For instance, the city of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, reached out to Xi'an Jiaotong University about building a science and engineering-focused university to support the Suzhou Industrial Park.

In 2006 Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), a cooperation between Xi'an Jiaotong University in Shaanxi and Liverpool University, was founded in Suzhou.

Nottingham Ningbo gravitates towards business-related subjects to fit the overall business environment in Ningbo.

Local governments often invest millions, if not billions of yuan, into such projects, providing land and construction of infrastructure such as school buildings.

According to Peter Lange, Provost of Duke University, Duke's funding for master planning, design, construction oversight and specialty consulting will amount to approximately $8-10 million.

It also plans to invest approximately $5 million per year over eight years to develop and support programs at Duke Kunshan, located between Shanghai and Suzhou.

The branch campuses or joint-venture universities are financially independent, which means they don't have to give a share of their proceeds to the mother institutions.

As schools worldwide have been cutting down budgets in recent years because of the financial crisis, some are questioning whether it's wise to invest in these international branches.

Who gets what

For universities, the expansion into China may serve to boost their reputation, especially their visibility in China, as well as to gather resources. Students could usually transfer between different campuses, thereby gaining the opportunity to study and work abroad.

China may also provide interesting research opportunities in areas such as energy. Like Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University, said at the school's Academic Council meetings, "If you want to understand about energy, energy economics, culture of energy, technology of energy production and things of that sort, China is the place where you have got the live experiments for that far more than in this country [US]."

Provost Lange said that Duke hopes to "expand opportunities for its students and faculty members in China and greater Asia." But he also said that they hope to "contribute to educational innovation in China through collaboration with our Chinese partners."

"Our ambition is that Duke Kunshan University will be a world-class university and a center of research excellence in China, spearheading the future of higher education in China, in the US and beyond," said Lange.

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher on education, however, doubts how much impact the international schools might have on changing China's own universities. It's obvious what needs to be done to change the education system and it's just a matter of committing to it, he says.

Academic freedom

Academic freedom is often described as a core value of Western universities and is a key concern when they come to China.

For instance the issue was brought up over and over again at regular meetings of the Academic Council of Duke University. Many faculty members have raised questions over free access to the Internet, unstable Google searches, and if a professor might be kicked out for irritating the government, according to minutes of their Academic Council meetings.

Mary Brown Bullock, executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan, said in an e-mail to the Global Times that they have received assurances from the Chinese side that Duke Kunshan "will be accorded the highest level of academic freedom, so that our faculty may teach what they want, and our students may learn what they want."

Jeffrey Lehman, Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai, also said that they have been charged by the Chinese authorities with the mission of "creating something new, something innovative, and we have been assured complete academic freedom as we go about our work."

Back in June, when Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng's one-year fellowship with NYU was coming to an end, the activist and others suggested that NYU was pressured by the Chinese government to kick him out because of its new Shanghai campus. The school has denied the accusation.

Lehman said he had spent four years leading the Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen before joining NYU Shanghai.

"Initially we had worries there about academic freedom, but those worries proved completely unwarranted," said Lehman in an e-mail to the Global Times.


Failed examples of international branches are not difficult to find. Of all the 30-plus US branch campuses in Japan since the 1980s, only two remain. The University of New South Wales closed its Singapore branch in 2007, less than a year after opening, due to low enrollments.

China is now the largest exporter of students. Close to 200,000 students were enrolled in the US for the 2011-2012 academic year, a 23 percent increase year-on-year, according to the 2012 Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education in the US.

It begs the question: why would Chinese students, who can afford to study overseas, if only for the experience and diploma that would give them an edge in the job market, pay high tuition to study in China?

A degree granted by an elite foreign university in China simply isn't the same as a degree gained abroad. According to research by Shanghai-based China Market Research Group, commissioned by Duke University in early 2011, while most families could and would be willing to pay $41,000 for a graduate degree from a prestigious university in the US, "none are willing to pay that much for a China-based Duke MMS [Masters of Management Services] degree."

Most students surveyed fear that the quality of education by foreign universities for China-based degree programs might be diluted, the report shows.

The schools, on the other hand, seek to reassure that the same education standards on their China campus as on other campuses. And for now at least, most remain optimistic about opportunities in China.

Vice Chancellor Lehman says that they will bring some of the best professors from NYU New York as well as star professors recruited from other universities.

"The ultimate goal of NYU Shanghai is to exemplify the highest ideals of contemporary higher education by uniting the intellectual resources of New York University's global network with the multidimensional greatness of China," said Lehman.

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