Internationalisation of Chinese education entering a new phase

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • China’s higher education system continues to expand at an incredible pace
  • This has already had profound effects within China but also across Asia and around the world
  • Also of note is the rapid expansion of links between Chinese universities and institutions and other partners abroad
  • These international links will now receive a further boost via a massive foreign investment and development scheme launched by the Chinese government

China’s higher education system continues to expand at a breakneck pace. Enrolment levels and participation rates are all trending sharply upward, and the system continues to grow at the equivalent of roughly one new university per week.

UNESCO statistics indicate that gross enrolment ratios (the percentage of the college-aged population enrolled in tertiary education) have spiked over the last five years as well, from about 24% in 2010 to just under 40% as of 2014. This translates into nearly 42,000,000 students in tertiary education programmes in 2014, and compares to an enrolment of roughly 20 million in the US higher education that year.

The sheer scale and pace of expansion, however, is hardly the whole story. China has made substantial, targeted investments in the quality of its higher education, most recently through a new initiative called “World Class 2.0” (also referred to as the “Double World Class Project”). Announced in August 2015, the programme aims to strengthen the research performance of China’s nine top-ranked universities, with the goal of having six of those institutions ranked within the world’s top 15 universities by 2030.

The continuing development of the Chinese system will no doubt be one of the big stories in higher education over the next decade and more. But the effects of China’s massive investment in education are already being felt across Asia and around the world:

  • This year’s Universitas 21 ranking of higher education systems reveals that China is the most-improved nation since 2013, having moved up 12 places in the global ranking table over the past four years.
  • In the most recent Times Higher Education BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings, Chinese universities held the top two spots, half of the top ten, and 39 positions overall in the 200-institution table.
  • China is now one of the world’s top study destinations, and attracted nearly 380,000 foreign students in 2014. International enrolment in China increased by 15% between 2012 and 2014, and the country aims to host 500,000 students by 2020.
  • The growing strength of Chinese higher education is contributing to a shift in outbound mobility patterns as well. For example, whereas most Chinese students in the US have traditionally pursued graduate studies, the balance has shifted over the last 15 years to the point where now roughly equally numbers of Chinese students are enrolled in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. This is in part because more Chinese scholars are staying home to do their postgraduate work and research at domestic institutions.

Along with its domestic priorities for economic and social development, it has become increasingly clear that China sees education as a means to expand and exercise its influence abroad. Most recently, this interest is reflected in the rapid expansion of cooperative links between Chinese universities and foreign partners.

In 2013, the Chinese government announced a massive development and foreign investment framework known as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). An invocation of the traditional Silk Road trade routes between Asia and Europe, OBOR aims to leverage China’s massive production and financial capacity through new projects and partnerships throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa.

the-geographic-scope-of-the-one-belt-one-road-framework
The geographic scope of the One Belt, One Road framework. Source: Economic Intelligence Unit

OBOR is backed by a US$50 billion investment fund and its framework includes an element focused on joint education programmes that has contributed to a growing network of more than 2,000 such links between Chinese institutions and foreign partners.

Simply put, OBOR makes concrete the government’s strategic focus on encouraging Chinese corporations and institutions to go abroad in search of new investments and new opportunities. “OBOR will cover nearly two-thirds of the world’s population and one-third of global GDP,” says a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The initiative is a departure from broader trends in Chinese outbound investment, which is increasingly being led by private firms. At least in the initial stages, the state – China’s state-owned enterprises and largest financial institutions – will be leading the charge.”

The OBOR is notable as well for its close coordination between different levels of government as well as both state and private-sector actors. We might expect as a result that this massive investment in offshore ventures and partnerships, in combination with the dramatic continuing expansion of Chinese higher education, will lead to a considerable increase in new ventures between Chinese universities and foreign partners.

We might imagine as well that such academic links – whether in the form of combined research, joint programmes, international campuses, or other collaborations – will increasingly become part of a broader pattern of bilateral relations between China and its trading partners. As a 2013 research report on Chinese research and innovation noted, “For any country seeking to collaborate with China, ensuring a density and diversity of connections will be crucial, spanning the academic, research, commercial, trade, and cultural spheres.”



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