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Why China wants more foreign universities

University of Nottingham Ningbo China

By Sam Shen

Many experts have pondered what it is exactly that has been responsible for China’s remarkable economic miracle. One of the reasons for the dramatic shift in the country’s fortunes is undoubtedly education.

This is made clear in China’s National Medium and Long Term Education Revolution and Development Plan (Year 2010 – 2020). “By means of the development of education, China has transformed from merely being a country with a large population to being a country with powerful human resources,” China highlights in its ambitious plan for the next decade.

This strategy, drafted in line with the national plans developed by the Communist Party of China’s 17th National Congress, emphasises that China is determined to keep the momentum going in the education sector.  It is no coincidence that the word “revolution” is part of the title of China’s working document on education.

China has set its national goals ever higher and wants to stay on track to becoming the world’s largest economy.  China says skills are critical for China’s future development, while education is the essential foundation. “We must always give priority to education,” the country’s policymakers urge citizens in the education development plan. 

International standards, quality education

Aspiring to be the best is as important as being the biggest. China talks about entering the ranks of powerful human resources countries by the end of this decade.

It promises to “comprehensively implement quality education and speed up China’s transformation from not just being a powerful nation but being an educated powerful nation, and so make a greater contribution to national rejuvenation”. Hundreds of millions of people are placing their hope for a better life on education, it says.

This is where quality Sino-foreign universities enter the picture. Foreign universities renowned for international excellence in teaching and research are seen as a very important part of China’s strategy to speed up the process of socialist modernisation and generally make life much better for most of its people.

China doesn’t have enough of its own universities to cater for the vast number of people it would like to receive higher education. Statistics indicate that about 1,4m people received postgraduate qualifications in 2009. China would like this figure to rise to 1,7m by 2015, and to 2m by 2020.

The country is aiming to dramatically increase university enrolment from roughly a quarter of all school-leavers to more than one-third within three years. The figure would be about 40% by the end of this decade. 

New thinking, international skills

China’s drive to rapidly expand its higher education provision isn’t just about coping with the numbers. Also important is further improving standards so that China can move into a new era of being an important provider of higher value-add products and services and generally lead the world in scientific and technological advancement.

Evident in China’s 10-year plan for education is that it wants international partners to help it achieve its objectives. It talks extensively about enhancing international communication and co-operation.

It wants to bring in “excellent” education and resources, and states as a major objective attracting top overseas schools, education and research institutions to the country. It expects to recruit many more foreign academics and teachers. It would like to send more of its students elsewhere, too.

One reason for wanting to involve foreigners in its education system is China’s strong desire to cultivate internationally relevant skills among more of its people. This is so that they can participate in, and compete with, international businesses entering China as the economy increasingly opens up. Chinese nationals trading and investing elsewhere would also reap obvious benefits of an international education.

Another reason is that China wants to improve co-operation in university research, which in turn taps into, and feeds off, private scientific and technological research. It understands that if you want to be a global leader in science and technology, you have to encourage international research collaborations and partnerships. You have to attract and nurture the best talent from around the world. 

China: The next decade

If the Chinese government is correct that education has been a major driver in economic transformation, the latest plan for education suggests that a healthy economic growth rate is sustainable, at least for the next decade. China wants to speed up reform in education – from preschool education, which it wants to popularise, to implementing a lifelong learning system.

It also wants to affect a sea-change in the way Chinese people are taught. It wants its students to work smarter, not harder, and teaching materials to be adjusted to ensure more effective learning. In other words, it wants its citizens to receive internationally excellent education.

China calls on officials to “work quicker to establish first-class universities”. It would like to shed its “Made in China” label in favour of a “Created in China” one, and it wants international educators and university scientists to help it do this.

The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, as a leader in education, expects to play an active role in driving that national, provincial and local agenda. As the first Sino-foreign university to open its doors in China with the full approval of the authorities, it is already the major force behind an important education think-tank in China and shares its knowledge with other parties who want to strengthen international educational ties.

These are exciting times to be a pioneering international university. There are huge challenges, but also enormous opportunities, particularly in China, which has put itself on the path of transformation “from not just being a powerful nation but to being an educated nation and so make a greater contribution to national rejuvenation”.

(Professor Sam Shen is Registrar at The University of Nottingham Ningbo China.)

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