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China to expand transnational education footprint with first offshore campuses

Along with being a leading source of international students, China has for some time been a preferred location for the transnational education (TNE) programmes of foreign universities.

Transnational education has long been the domain of major study abroad destinations in the west: in particular, the US, the UK, and Australia. Institutions from those countries (and others) have opened international branch campuses in China, established joint degree programmes with Chinese institutions, and entered into franchise or licensing arrangements with partners in China.

And now, after two decades of educational reform and expansion, China has stepped onto the TNE stage – not as a host for foreign institutions, but rather, as an exporter.

Chinese presence in Laos

Chinese institutions currently operate two offshore programmes in Laos.

Soochow University, based in China’s Jiangsu province, received its approval from the Lao government in 2010 and began offering programmes in the capitol city, Vientiane, in 2012. The university is now moving toward the establishment of two branch campuses in the city.

Soochow is reportedly targeting an enrolment of 5,000 students in its Laotian campuses across a range of programmes, including Chinese language and culture, engineering, management, and computer science.

Meanwhile, China’s Kunming University of Science and Technology (KUST) operates an offshore programme based on the Laotian campus of Thailand’s Dhurakij Pundit University. Also beginning its Laotian programmes in 2010, KUST offers undergraduate degrees in international business, tourism management, and Chinese language and culture.

Both programmes appear to have been sparked by a 2006 agreement between the Chinese and Laotian governments for construction of a site in Vientiane for the 25th Southeast Asia Games. They equally appear to have been further fueled by China’s current “Long-term education reform and development plan (2010-2020)”, which includes a clear statement as to China’s interest in promoting its “educational institutions overseas to enhance the international exchange of education, extensive international cooperation and education services.”

China’s big entrance into Malaysia

Also reflecting this broad national strategy, China’s Xiamen University announced in 2011 its intention to open a campus in Malaysia.

International branch campuses are not without their challenges, but there are two noteworthy things about the Xiamen programme.

First, Xiamen is the first globally ranked Chinese university to venture substantially into this mode of transnational education. The university ranks 451-500 in the most recent QS rating tables. Xiamen was also notably part of the Chinese Ministry of Education’s “Project 211”, a national initiative to boost the research standards of leading universities in China, as well as “Project 985”, another major capacity-building initiative for Chinese universities.

Along with Xiamen’s status as a major, globally ranked Chinese research university, the other noteworthy aspect of its Malaysian project is its sheer size. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Xiamen’s planned Malaysian campus:

“The plan as outlined in the news media is quite ambitious. It includes the construction of a campus on a 150-acre site near Kuala Lumpur with degrees offered in five areas: bioengineering and electrical and chemical engineering, medicine, information and communications technology, business and economics, and Chinese language and literature.

“The project’s leaders are proposing an enrolment target of 10,000 students in their initial phase, and 700 instructors will be hired to ensure a faculty-to-student ratio of 1:15. The prime minister of Malaysia has stated that excess revenue will be reinvested to improve institutional quality and further Malaysia’s position as an educational hub.

“If these plans come to pass, Xiamen would have the largest branch campus in the world. It would be substantially bigger than any of the existing branch campuses in Malaysia, and by itself would represent about a 50% increase in the total number of students enrolled in international branch campuses in the country.”

The university’s Malaysian campus is scheduled to open in September 2015 with an estimated start-up cost of RMB 600 million (about US $98 million). Xiamen has stated its intention to build a diverse enrolment there composed equally of Malaysian, Chinese, and third-country students (primarily from ASEAN states).

As with Soochow and KUST in Laos, Xiamen’s expansion to Malaysia is a product of broader linkages between the two countries. The university’s founder, Tan Kah Kee, was a well-known Malaysian businessman, and Malaysian Chinese represent a significant ethnic group in Malaysia today, accounting for roughly a quarter of the total population and yet underserved in terms of access to the public higher education system.

Beyond those historical and cultural ties, Malaysia is also an attractive transnational education market for Chinese institutions due to growing demand in the country for higher education. And as we’ve reported in the past, Malaysia is actively building its reputation as a regional hub for students from across Asia – and the rest of the world.

Growing sophistication and a new level of internationalisation among Chinese universities

More broadly, these early projects in Laos and Malaysia reflect the increasing capacity and international interests of Chinese institutions. As Roger Chao recently commented in Inside Higher Ed:

“Much like its economic development, China has hosted branch campuses, learned from their experience, developed their own higher education sector and institutions, and now ventured into higher education as a new export industry through the establishment of branch campuses offshore… We can expect to see more of these Chinese offshore initiatives in the near future.”

These developments also reflect a new level of competition in the international marketplace, as well as an important milestone in the ongoing development and expansion of Chinese education.

Finally, they further illustrate the ongoing drive to establish and expand regional hubs for education in various sites around the world, centres that are open to students worldwide but largely focused on serving a regional student base.

This last point picks up on an important trend that we began to see in student mobility data a couple of years ago and that ICEF Monitor has reported on previously:

“There is also increasing evidence that international students are staying within their home regions to a greater extent than in the past. The percentage of Latin American students, for example, remaining within the region increased from 11% in 1999 to 23% in 2007. Similarly, the percentage of mobile East Asian students studying within the region rose from 36% to 42% over the same period.”

Perhaps the important question now is to what extent an increase in transnational education initiatives within key regional markets – such as the expansion of Chinese institutions to Laos and Malaysia as in the examples we have looked at here – will reinforce or even accelerate this pattern of regional student mobility.

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