The University of Nottingham’s Vice-Chancellor responds to Agora report

Editor’s note: this official response to the Agora report we briefly profiled on 7 December was submitted to GlobalHigherEd today by Professor Sir Colin Campbell, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Nottingham.


Higher education news outlets reporting the conclusions of the think tank ‘Agora have mostly given an account of a handful of parochial views. The conclusions attributed to those quoted are at odds with many distinguished colleagues working in science and engineering across British universities, and also with the United Kingdom’s Research Councils.

unningbo.jpgProfessor Ian Gow, who received an OBE in recognition of his considerable efforts to help us establish a world first – the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (pictured to the left) – could have been reported out of context, but his views as published were unwarrantedly defensive. The manner in which they were presented does little justice to his previous achievement as Foundation Provost at our award-winning and successful China campus.

icuk.jpgProfessor Gow, a social scientist, and the other contributors to the Agora think tank paper which you reported unchallenged, can be reassured that individual UK research councils, as well as RCUK, and the European Union, are fostering collaborative research with China across medicine, science and engineering. They regard it as an important development in their thinking and their funding programmes. Recently a consortium of British universities including Nottingham, King’s College London and Southampton, and more than twenty universities in China, agreed to pool their expertise in order to bring joint innovation to the worldwide marketplace. Innovation China-UK is now supporting academic and business partners in funding proof-of-concept research, and in commercialising intellectual property.

The University of Nottingham has, for several years, been undertaking tripartite plant genetics work with two distinguished Chinese institutions, Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Amongst our shared goals are combining the experience of all three universities in plant genetics. Happily, the venture is also promoting joint applications for international funding, and it is providing exciting training and exchange opportunities for research students and staff in both nations. This is just one example from a vast range across the sciences. It is extremely difficult to decipher in it, and countless research projects like it, any kind of ‘threat’ to British scholarship or to the UK economy, and fortunately the UK Research Councils and the British government agree.

Globalisation means that our country cannot “stay at home”. Nor, to quote Professor Michael Shattock (with perhaps the most depressing view to have emerged from Agora’s exercise) can UK universities “stick to their knitting”. Professor Gow, claimed your article, ‘called British institutions “incredibly naïve” for handing over their research in key disciplines to get a foothold in China.’ In fact, he was cautioning ‘emerging’ joint ventures, and not those already well established, but little matter. Leading international universities are very carefully managing the risks involved in any overseas venture, in order to expand their sphere of influence. Research, like student exchanges with China, has to be two-way in order to be sustainable. The “win-win” situation we are being urged in undeservedly panicked tones to “engineer” is in fact already underway, on a fair and reciprocal basis, and it is flourishing. We have huge confidence that the world will be better for it.

Professor Sir Colin Campbell is Vice-Chancellor of The University of Nottingham

To link or not to link? On linkages between Western and Chinese universities

danielbell.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly prepared by Daniel A. Bell, Professor of Philosophy, Tsinghua University, Beijing, PRC. Daniel (pictured to the left) is the author or editor of numerous books including Communitarianism and Its Critics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), East Meets West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), Confucian Political Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) and Ethics in Action (New York: Cambridge University Press; United Nations University Press, 2006). He has worked in the PRC, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, and the USA.


Perhaps the most dramatic change in the Chinese higher education system has been the huge increase of students, without a comparable increase in government funding. Hence, many universities now find themselves in the red. And students often find it harder to get good jobs after they graduate, even those from top universities like Beijing University. If this trend continues, at some point it will become less “rational” (from an economic point of view) to get a university degree. I’ve already heard anecdotal evidence of secondary school students being encouraged (by parents and friends) to find jobs rather than sit through the grueling national examinations for university spots. But I’ve been asked to talk about changes related to “the global” so let me focus on the issue of linkages with Western universities. What I say stems more from my experience teaching at Tsinghua University (I’m hired on local terms to teach political philosophy) rather than from systematic research on the topic.

One clear trend is the effort by Western universities to forge linkages, formal and otherwise, with Chinese universities, especially prestigious universities in Beijing and Shanghai. An administrator friend at Tsinghua tells me he is flooded with such requests and can accommodate only a small percentage of them. The situation at Beijing University is similar and I’ve heard that requests from not-so-famous Western universities are arrogantly rebuffed. Western universities that have yet to enter the market should therefore consider linkages with Chinese universities outside the main cities. The differences in academic quality may not be all that great and there may be higher levels of enthusiasm and cooperation among such universities.

I’ve also heard one important complaint from the Chinese side. When universities such as Stanford and Harvard seek to implement “learning in China” programs, they often insist on bringing in their own professors in the name of “quality control”. One wonders if it’s really worth the effort (and expense) to bring students over to China so that they will be taught by the same professors they’d have at home. And sometimes, what goes in the “quality control” may in fact stem from different understandings of “responsible teaching”. In a Western university, the teacher is supposed to prepare a detailed syllabus, with the topics and readings for each lecture decided at the beginning of term. Few Chinese professors prepare such syllabi and thus they would fail the test of Western-style “quality control”. But the main reason for “vague” Chinese syllabi is that lectures – especially at the graduate level — tend to be more informal, with the ebb and flow of discussion influencing the following week’s topics. Rather than insist on conformity to Western-style norms, it seems to me that Western universities should encourage their students to be exposed to different learning experiences.

Let me say something about academic freedom in Chinese universities, which has been source of worry for Western universities that seek linkages in the humanities and the social sciences. In my experience – and I teach in a sensitive area — classroom discussion has been unexpectedly free and uninhibited. I’ve rarely experienced the fear that seems to grip students in Singapore when the discussion veers towards critical evaluation of the government leaders and policies (I taught in Singapore in the early 1990s and things may have improved since then). Of course, there are some constraints in China – it would not be wise to engage in prolonged and emotional discussion of the events of June 4th, 1989 – but even these constraints tend to disappear during the course of the term, as trust develops between teacher and students. I do not mean to imply that academic freedom should be limited to the classroom – those of us working in China often experience the severe and seemingly arbitrary constraints on publication of our research. But Western universities that seek alternative learning experiences for their students need not worry too much about such constraints.

Daniel A. Bell