Let one hundred alliances bloom

Links between British and Chinese universities are burgeoning as students from the People's Republic flock to study degrees in the UK. Now, one higher education institution has gone a step further in capitalising on this demand, and set up its own branch campus in China. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

A successful Chinese industrialist was boasting proudly that his son was at a British educational institution, one of the best in the country. However, he couldn't remember which. After racking his brains, he decided to call his wife on the mobile phone. But his wife couldn't recall the name of the elite establishment either. In desperation, the entrepreneur had only one choice: he fast-dialled his son in the United Kingdom to ask where the boy was being educated.

This is a true story, illustrating not only the Chinese affection for mobile telephones, but also their enthusiasm for a foreign education. In China, to receive your schooling or your degree at an institution in Britain, or Australia, or the United States automatically puts you into the top league. The name of the university or school is not as important as the fact that you have tasted learning outside the People's Republic. No wonder universities from the United Kingdom are falling over one another to meet this huge demand.

Last year, the number of Chinese students in the UK reached a new record - 25,000. But there are millions of people in China now who aspire to, and receive, a university education and would leap at the chance to get a degree from the UK. In the three years between 1997 and 2000, there was remarkable growth in student numbers within China, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Numbers increased from 3.2 million students to a staggering seven million. (The government target is 15 million.)

Ironically, given China's status as a Communist country, many of the new universities that are being set up to deal with this demand are private. There are 1,300 private institutions now in operation, and alliances between Chinese and foreign organisations are burgeoning.

The British university that is blazing the brightest trail in China is Nottingham, and the plans for setting up its first Chinese campus - in Ningbo, Shejiang Province - are well advanced. The campus will take 600 students initially to study for Nottingham degrees in computer science and business studies, and the project as a whole is being undertaken in partnership with the Wanli Education Group, reputed to be the most innovative and successful education company in the People's Republic.

This is the first time a British university has opened up shop in China, although for Nottingham it is its second campus abroad. The first was established in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in September 2000. Nottingham's vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Colin Campbell, is bullish about the project's prospects. "A world-class university of the 21st century needs to recognise the tremendous strides that the Chinese are making in terms of their economic development, their intellectual potential and their contribution to international citizenship," he says. "Our commitment is to form strategic partnerships with this dynamic emerging super-state, which will make a significant contribution to the rapidly strengthening ties between the UK and China."

This new venture will take two years to set up and is being funded by Shejiang Province to the tune of 1bn yuan (£80m). To be called Ningbo Nottingham United University, it will be a private institution and its president will be Professor Ian Gow, Nottingham's pro-vice-chancellor (Asia), who flew out to China last week for more talks. All of the academic staff will come from the United Kingdom.

Students will pay 50,000 yuan a year, which is about £3,800, considerably less than the £6,000-£8,000 they would have to pay as overseas students in the UK. The undergraduate programme will comprise four years: a one-year foundation course consisting of English language learning and study skills, followed by a three-year degree.

No other British university has gone as far in reaching out to China. In addition to these campuses, Nottingham has recently opened a new China Policy Institute, designed to become one of the foremost think-tanks on Sino-UK relations in the West, and has also established a China Projects Office to coordinate research and teaching between Nottingham and China. In addition, its school of education is developing a programme for the online training of English teachers in China, in collaboration with two Chinese universities and financed by the Higher Education Funding Council.

Some of the new universities are also active in China - although none has gone so far as to establish a campus. Perhaps the most energetic in this respect is Middlesex University, which has established offices in Beijing and Shanghai, and which has 700 Chinese students taking its degrees via local partnerships. These students are mainly taking postgraduate courses in computing, environmental and media studies.

Another institution busy building up links with China is the University of East London (UEL), which also has an office in Beijing. It runs an MBA in conjunction with Beijing Polytechnic University, and an art and design course in collaboration with Tsinghua University. Students on the art and design course do one year in China followed by three years at UEL.

A third collaboration, with Beijing Union University, enables Chinese students to take UEL degrees in computing, technology, ICT and engineering. They study in the Chinese capital for three years, then come to London for one year. Like all Chinese students, they work extremely hard. That may explain why, of the 22 students on these courses last year, five achieved first class degrees.

Academics and administrators from British universities are forever flitting halfway round the world to discuss ideas for alliances with Chinese universities. Professor Joan Stringer, the new principal of Napier University in Edinburgh, has just returned from a trip to the People's Republic during which she visited the universities with which Napier has links. The university has 300 Chinese students taking degrees in finance, business, economics, computing and IT on collaborative arrangements with Shandong Finance Institute in Jinan Province and the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. It also has a long-standing arrangement with two universities in Hong Kong, whereby 800 students take Napier degrees.

"The strategic alliances are there to enable us to ensure that we build links with good universities in China, which are able to provide students with good English language skills," she explains. "We are in this for the long term. It's not about gathering as many students as we can and cutting and running. The opportunities are phenomenal, but so are the risks if you don't get it right."

As part of the next stage of its strategy, Napier wants to look at delivering some of its programmes with other partners in China. The pattern of demand is changing, Professor Stringer says. Chinese students are now showing more interest in degrees in subjects such as engineering, industrial design and transport.

The next big development in China will be the online student market. The country possesses one of the biggest online populations in the world, even though access remains restricted mainly to people living in the big cities in the east. UK universities are limbering up to tap into this.

Nottingham is planning an online MA in linguistics in collaboration with two Chinese universities, and an online BA/MA in health management for nurses.


Wang Jufen is the deputy director of the Women's Studies Centre at Fudan University in Shanghai. Thanks to a link funded by the British Council between her centre and Umist, she has been able to carry out a survey into the minimum wage in private companies in Shanghai - specifically into whether it is being adhered to and how women are affected. That collaborative project is one of 28 such links between universities in Britain and their counterparts in China. Sixteen of them are in Shanghai in the areas of agriculture, the environment, computer science, economics, political and social science, gender, employment and health.

Another piece of research, being carried out by the East China University of Science and Technology with Napier University, is into unemployment among women in Shanghai. Women workers over the age of 35 have been adversely affected by the economic restructuring which has seen five to six million workers a year being laid off by state-run industries. The private sector has not been able to pick all of them up.

The Cultural Revolution made the problem worse, according to Professor Ronald McQuaid of Napier University. It meant that a large number of Shanghaiese were sent to work in the countryside without completing high school and without going to university. They returned to Shanghai at the end of that period lacking the skills needed in today's marketplace. When they were laid off in the restructuring they were left in a weak position, having failed to acquire good educational qualifications. Napier is helping the Shanghaiese to set up entrepreneurial training, in subjects such as how to prepare vegetables to sell to a supermarket.

Professor Tim Cole, of the Institute of Child Health at University College, London, is working on a project with the Shanghai Children's Hospital measuring childhood obesity. His colleague, Professor Jiang Yifang, has collected data on 90,000 children in Shanghai and has found that Chinese boys are almost as fat as their UK and US counterparts but that Chinese girls are thinner than theirs. The assumption the professors have made is that Chinese girls are not given as much to eat as boys because they have a lower social status.

The single child policy that is rigorously enforced in China has exacerbated the problem of "the little emperors" - boys who are spoilt rotten by their parents and given too much to eat.