By Andrew Zerzan

06 June 2019 - 12:29

Chinese student looking at a computer screen and smiling
'Unfortunately, international student recruitment has been the primary motive for a number of universities’ partnerships with Chinese ones.' Photo ©

Mat Wright.

China's scientific research is on the rise. UK universities should see this as an opportunity to partner with Chinese institutions long-term. The British Council's Andrew Zerzan explains why and how.

China is a long-term player in international relations, including in higher education

The speed at which China has lifted a generation out of poverty and is building the infrastructures for sustainable development is remarkable. How has it achieved such rapid development?

Part of the answer lies in China’s approach to international partnerships: they are long-term players rather than transaction chasers. Relatively heavy government control is criticised as burdensome, but does direct activity towards the country’s ambitions.

We see this in China's tight approvals processes for transnational education partnerships, which direct the market towards matching its national strategic interest of becoming a research and education heavyweight. This approach differs from that of most other countries, where university partners are determined by the parties directly involved.

Why it makes sense to partner with Chinese institutions

China matters in global scientific research, so other countries and major institutions would be wise to pay attention to its rise. In the coming years, China could surpass the US as the top country for research output. A little over a decade ago, it was barely producing a quarter of the US's annual volumes. Research excellence has soared as well. China now exceeds the European Union in volume of output that is in the top one per cent of cited articles (according to SciVal 2019).

The bottom line: China is headed to the front of global research, so now is the time to partner with it for the future.

Universities need to think beyond recruiting Chinese students

Many foreign universities see China as a source of short-term financial gains. This is for good reason: the country’s economic rise has resulted in a flood of deep-pocketed international students to English-speaking universities in Europe, North America and Australia. The increase in Chinese students studying in the UK year-on-year has exceeded the growth of the other top ten sending countries combined. They are set to soon overtake the total number of EU students in the UK. With public financing uncertainty related to Brexit and government austerity, UK universities’ aggressive recruitment of Chinese students for immediate financial gains makes sense.

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Unfortunately, international student recruitment has been the primary motive for a number of universities’ partnerships with Chinese ones. Rather than working with a local partner that has the greatest mutual research interest and complementary strengths, they approach the most willing partner. This has resulted in a mismatch in partners, poorer research output and frustrations on both sides. Chinese regulators are now increasingly careful on which partnerships are approved, so applications for poor matches are less likely to be authorised. Furthermore, China’s Ministry of Education looks at foreign universities’ track-record in assessing partnership approvals, so low-quality partnerships will be difficult to pursue.

Traditionally, the UK has had the highest approval rate for transnational education partnerships in China. However, it is increasingly apparent to those I met in China that the US will take the top spot in the next few years.

But this is not just a numbers game. How can UK universities use their positive relationships with China to deepen their engagement beyond recruiting students?

What to look out for when approaching an education partnership with Chinese institutions

1. Use your ranking strength: suitability of a foreign partner is highly weighted on the global rankings. China wants the highest-quality partners to work with its institutions, so rankings are an important factor for regulators on deciding whether the foreign partner is a good match. Therefore, set up joint programmes that use your university’s strong rankings rather than those you wish to shore up.

2. Start from scratch: after finding a well-matching local partner, work with them to design a programme from the bottom up. This ensures it plays to the Ministry of Education’s interest that the programme serves both a local need and a national one. It also gives foreign universities the opportunity to develop course and administrative materials that are all in English, avoiding language confusion when in operation.

3. Build depth in the partnership: because of China’s scale, foreign universities sometimes try to go big by partnering with many institutions in rapid succession. This has often resulted in disappointment. Go small to manage risk and go deep to make it a quality relationship that provides a return.

4. Link senior management on both sides: building depth in the partnership means you need to go beyond the usual faculty-level engagement. It requires high-level agreement and relationship maintenance. In China, that means the foreign university’s top management should visit regularly to discuss how the partnership is going and how to deepen it.

5. Be creative on managing the restrictive environment: even though China’s regulatory context is stricter than most others', there is still space to develop a bespoke partnership arrangement. Off-the-shelf approaches exist, but institutions can design their own partnership structures within the regulatory boundaries.

For other countries to benefit from China’s rise, they need to be as focused as China is on the long term. This means moving away from the immediate – and tempting – financial gains from working with China to serious investment in research and wider academic collaborations.

Andrew Zerzan is Lead Partner and Director of Education for the British Council globally.

If you would like to discuss how your institution can make the most of a partnership with a Chinese counterpart, please contact our education team.

For more education intelligence, please visit our International Education Services.

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