Debating China: UK universities in China and Confucius Institutes in Western universities

agorachinacover.jpgGlobalHigherEd has been relatively quiet lately with the two co-editors traveling a lot for research. One of us (Kris Olds) was speaking at the University of Nottingham’s UK campus yesterday. By pure coincidence my visit corresponded with the publication of two leading articles in today’s Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education on the forging of higher education linkages with China, a country where GlobalHigherEd is now inaccessible (so we have been told). Given that nothing critical has been published about China in the blog to date we can only assume that the platform is the causal trigger for this act of censorship.

In any case check out the Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Education entries, and revisit Daniel Bell’s 3 December entry (‘To link or not to link? On linkages between Western and Chinese universities’). Today’s articles profile an Agora discussion paper that includes a relatively critical chapter by Ian Gow, an East Asianist, and former Foundation Provost and Vice-President of the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China. Gow is now Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England. Gow’s brief chapter focuses on what he perceives to be new reality that somewhat naïve UK universities need to take into account when forging more linkages with China:

Watching the new changes in the Sino-foreign higher education joint venture legislation and its administrative guidance – and how they interpret that legislation – is very worrying. The Chinese government are allowing foreign partnerships, but with the Chinese institution very much in control. The University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus and The University of Liverpool’s joint institution with Xi’an Jiaotong University are two brave attempts at partnership with China. Yet this is a model that is unlikely to occur again, unless a world class US institution manages to get through. The institutions currently negotiating entry will gain it on Chinese terms, with the Chinese very much in control. The Chinese no longer have to persuade, they seem to have everyone eating out of their hands. The pull factor is being replaced by a push from the foreign institutions. But we are not thinking sufficiently about how to engineer a win-win situation: we are simply rushing to establish any sort of partnership, to get out there. Unless emerging Sino-UK strategic alliances are better thought through, British higher education could be sorry.

The Guardian article, and especially Gow’s chapter, received a quickly written rejoinder from Colin Campbell, Nottingham’s Vice-Chancellor. In Campbell’s response, also published today in the Guardian, he states:

Globalisation means that our country cannot “stay at home”. Nor, to quote Prof Michael Shattock (with perhaps the most depressing view to have emerged from Agora’s exercise), can UK universities “stick to their knitting”.

The article claimed that Prof Gow “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 to expand their sphere of influence. Research, like student exchanges with China, has to be two-way 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.

It is good to see some public debate going on as there is a lot to be learned from universities on the front lines of the globalization of higher education, especially with respect to the reorganization of their institutional structures.

rutgers.jpgIn addition Insider Higher Ed balances this UK-based view with additional coverage of an Australia-based framing and critique of the ongoing establishment of hundreds (180 and counting) Confucius Institutes in universities throughout the world. These institutes are sponsored by Chinese Language Council International, and are expressive of China’s use of higher education as a form of ‘soft power’; a strategy raising curiosity in many quarters. The most recent Confucius Institute was opened in Rutgers University, as pictured here to the right. Jocelyn Chey, a former diplomat and visiting professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney spoke about the issue and it is available here in mp3 format. The intertwining of higher education and global geopolitical strategy is a topic that has historic precedent, of course, but is evolving in some new and quite fascinating ways.

UK- and Australia-centred views to be sure, and designed to spur on debate, but food for thought from actors with significant experience in engaging with the evolving Chinese higher education and foreign affairs complex.

Kris Olds