China announces the closure of more than 200 TNE programmes

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • China’s Ministry of Education has confirmed the termination of 234 education partnerships between Chinese and foreign providers
  • The announcement reflects cumulative closures between 2006 and 2018
  • The majority of terminated programmes appear to have been those that either had never begun operations, or had been wound down due to low demand
  • Even so, the announcement sends a clear signal of increasing government oversight with respect to Sino-foreign education partnerships

The Chinese Ministry of Education has approved the termination of 234 Sino-foreign partnership programmes and jointly managed institutions.

The closures represent roughly 10% of the 2,342 Sino-foreign cooperative programmes that have been initiated between the early 2000s (when such partnerships were first allowed) and June 2018. The MOE reports that roughly half of that total, or 1,090 partnerships, are for programmes at the undergraduate level or above.

A related statement from the ministry frames the move as an exercise in quality control and reflects the government’s continuing oversight of Sino-foreign collaborations in transnational education (TNE) programmes.

“Concerns have been raised over a small number of underperforming joint initiatives, which were found to have poor teaching standards and be lacking in educational resources, thereby failing to meet students’ demands and thus unable to attract new students,” says the statement. “Building a sound and effective winding up mechanism for such institutions or programmes is an important part of the MOE’s work to better regulate and improve the quality of the joint running of schools between China and foreign countries.”

A cumulative total

In related media coverage this week, Chinese higher education expert Mike Gow has pointed out that the list of terminated programmes reflects cumulative closures ordered by the MOE from 2006 to 2018.

“Since 2007, the MOE has been indicating its concern at the predatory market nature of many foreign university activities in China, including comments directed at official Sino-foreign collaborations,” Mr Gow said to Inside Higher Ed. “125 programmes were closed between 2006-2015, with a further 104 closed in 2016-18. The majority of these look like programmes which were poorly conceived, hastily established. Many may never have become operational. Also, the majority were established 2001-2004.”

The closures include 62 of 245 Chinese TNE programmes initiated by British providers, and 44 of 149 programmes established in partnership with Australian providers. The two countries – along with the US and the 238 programmes launched to date by American institutions – account for a significant proportion of the higher education partnerships between Chinese and foreign providers. Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, agrees with Mr Gow’s assessment of the closures and notes that many of the terminated programmes were “in practical terms either defunct or had no demand from students.”

An orderly wind-up

The MOE’s statements on the programme terminations also make clear that all closures were anticipated in the exit provisions set out in the original government approvals for the partnerships. One significant aspect of this is that no students have been impacted by the closures, either because they have completed their studies before programme termination or because the partner institutions have made other arrangements to accommodate any affected students.

Of particular note here is that licenses granted by the MOE for TNE programmes carry an expiry date with student intakes tied to licenses renewals or terminations. That is to say that the ministry will not permit ongoing intakes for programmes that will be terminated – rather, the programme will typically continue to “teach out” its last intake of students and then be wound down.

In further remarks to Inside Higher Ed, Mr Gow adds, “It seems clear that tolerance of poorly run programmes, established as de facto recruitment and pathway channels, are being eradicated from the Sino-foreign landscape. The authorities want genuinely collaborative programmes that help Chinese universities develop teaching and internationalise.” Going forward, this suggests a more restrictive environment for the popular “2+2” joint programmes that have allowed Chinese students to begin degree programmes at home and then go abroad to complete their studies and earn a foreign degree.

There are some indications in fact that foreign providers can expect additional oversight and a tighter approval process for new TNE initiatives in China. As University World News reported recently: “New approvals of joint projects with foreign institutions have slowed significantly in the past year, after the ministry issued a ‘five-point plan’ with more stringent guidelines for developing Sino-foreign collaborations in early 2017.”

“In its update in April this year of newly approved joint institutions and programmes, the ministry lists only two new undergraduate joint programmes, seven postgraduate joint programmes and four joint institutions since September 2017. The 13 approvals contrast with over 30 approvals the same time last year.”

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