The Phantom Campus in China

Amid the clamor for branches of American colleges abroad, some of the most ambitious plans for the People's Republic are as yet, and perhaps even permanently, unrealized.
February 12, 2008

In May 2006, Kean University attracted national attention for its announcement that it would “be the first American university to open an extensive and newly constructed university campus on Chinese soil in September 2007.” As the New York Times reported at the time, “Glasses clinked, toasts were made and then leaders of this 151-year-old institution were calling it the most important moment in its history.”

Well, it’s now February 2008, and there’s been no such announcement of the historic campus opening. In response to multiple inquiries on the project’s status, a university spokesman offered only brief answers over e-mail. “Kean University is continuing to pursue plans to open a campus in Wenzhou. The application was approved by the municipal and provincial governments and is now with the Ministry of Education for review,” Stephen Hudik said in one.

"We do not have a timetable in place at this time for the upcoming [opening] of the campus. We are still very much engaged with the governing bodies in China on the application. The process of opening up a new campus is a lengthy one and involves many various procedures and reviews. We are continuing step by step with the process and await the decision of the Ministry of Education," he said in a second. That message came in response to follow-up questions about whether the negotiations were still active and what a new timetable for opening might be, if Kean's funding offer from local and provincial Chinese governments still held, and if university officials remained optimistic about ultimately attaining approval from the Ministry.

Colleges across the United States continue to plan and construct ever-more-ambitious extensions of themselves abroad. A front-page article on branch campuses in Sunday's New York Times, the first in a series on higher education and globalization, described the phenomenon as "a kind of educational gold rush."

Yet, in China -- where the market for higher education is sizzling hot and the quantity of potential students staggeringly large -- a number of highly ambitious plans by American colleges to open full-fledged campuses have fizzled or otherwise been indefinitely forestalled. To take another example, in May 2005, Inside Higher Ed reported that the University of Montana planned to open a campus for 2,000 Chinese undergraduates in fall 2006. The hoped-for campus -- which would be funded by private investors -- has so far been mired in the Chinese Ministry approval process.

“In China, you never want to formally apply for anything that you know is not going to be approved,” said Terry Weidner, director of Montana's Mansfield Center, which focuses on Asia and U.S.-Asian relations. “We have never made a formal application, so what we were doing is waiting for the word, ‘You may now apply,’ meaning ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, it’ll now be approved.’ ” To date, there's been no (unofficial) word either way.

When asked about the challenges of establishing campuses in China, American academics point to the Chinese Ministry's slow-paced scrutiny of foreign colleges looking to operate in the country. The Chinese embassy didn't respond to an inquiry, but the Ministry's scrutiny is arguably well-placed given the seemingly unending number of American institutions looking to China to build exchange partnerships, dual degree programs, and even campuses (typically if they can get the infrastructure built for them by local governments or outside investors).

"China is, as a policy issue, grappling with precisely this idea. How should they welcome foreign freestanding operations in China and how to do it; what should be the parameters? Eventually they’ll figure it out," said Philip G. Altbach, director of Boston College's Center for International Education. "Whether Kean University or Montana has given up the ghost after all this time, I have no idea. But I’m sure they or numerous others would like to get in on the ground floor.”

Complicating the debate further is the fact that while "academic exchange" is often the buzz-term -- and no doubt that's often part of the motivation -- institutions are usually out for financial gain, too. In speaking about the planned Montana campus, for instance, the university stressed that taxpayer monies would not be used. And the fact that university officials had hoped it would be a money-making endeavor is no secret. Among the goals and objectives identified by President George M. Dennison in 2006-7: “Pursue alternative revenue sources, including the China Campus.”

“Those who tend to be nervous about Western influence are certainly nervous about the for-profit model, as well, because they have conceptions about Western profiteering,” said Weidner.

He added that “it’s sort of obvious that there is disagreement at the highest level on the Chinese side” about what to do with its American suitors.

“I think the Chinese probably know they’re the No. 1 market on the planet. It’s not news to them,” said Don Olcott, chief executive of the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

Citing the momentum that drives the desired expansions, Olcott also mentioned the often understated risks. “I think it is risky. I think it's probably more risky than most institutions who have engaged in it will admit, because there are so many unknowns as the international market has been in flux.” It's very difficult, Olcott added, to find out from institutional leaders what they've spent in funding their overseas (ad)ventures. While foreign governments or investors in some cases offer to pay for the physical plant -- making the prospect seem palatable even to cash-strapped state universities -- programs and campuses abroad can swallow significant administrative resources during the negotiation process alone.

“I’m entirely convinced,” Olcott said, “that there are institutions that are trying to play in this market who have no business being in it.”


The Players and Their Market

In China, the particular challenges include significant financial risks -- "figuring out how much money can go into this" -- as well as regulatory, logistical and cultural hurdles, said Robin Matross Helms, who just began researching an article on branch campuses in China (and who works in the University of Minnesota's provost's office as coordinator of faculty awards). Government regulations require that foreign educational entities have a Chinese college as a partner in order to operate in the country. But that can be easier said than done -- even when both sides seem willing. Having lived in China, Helms said, she was particularly struck by "how much people will tell you what you want to hear, whether or not it's true."

"They take you out; you get wined and dined. You think you're ready to move on with this partnership and then it goes up in smoke," she said. "You have to choose your partners very carefully."

Given these challenges, by far the dominant model for international education initiatives in China is much smaller in scale, with joint degree programs being one popular approach. As of August 2006, more than 1,300 joint programs were operating with 378 more at the candidate stage, according to a report from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, “Sino-Foreign Joint Education Ventures: A National, Regional and Institutional Analysis."

Some universities have been successful in setting up centers in collaboration with Chinese institutions, like Johns Hopkins University's longstanding center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University. Bucking what has become the dominant model, the Universities of Liverpool and Nottingham both established full-fledged campuses in China. As outlined in a recent discussion paper from Agora, a British think tank focused on higher education, “British Universities in China: The Reality Beyond the Rhetoric,” Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University opened in 2006 as an independent, stand-alone institution rather than a Liverpool outpost. It more than quadrupled its enrollment to 800 students in two years.

Nottingham’s 2,850-student overseas campus -- the first Sino-foreign university to receive approval from the Chinese Ministry of Education -- operates in partnership with Zhejiang Wanli Education, a Chinese education company that paid to build the campus. “[B]ut Nottingham has been careful not to disclose precise details of how the control breaks down between the two partners.”

In his essay in the Agora paper, Ian Gow, pro-vice chancellor at the University of the West of England and formerly the founding provost for the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, wrote it is “unlikely that any other institution will negotiate the sort of freedom that the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool achieved. It is much more likely that institutions will come in and teach and research what the Chinese want them to teach (science and technology) and where they want them to teach it.”

And even in its case study of Liverpool’s initiative -- enabled by agreements with Xi’an Jiaotong University and the American for-profit education company, Laureate Education Incorporated -- the Agora paper indicates that “[i]t may be significant that this university started life as the Liverpool-Xi’an Jiaotong University and has now quietly shifted to Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.”

In this climate, some other American universities that earlier announced grandiose plans have since backed down to focus on smaller-scale endeavors. Oklahoma City University, for instance -- credited in the Observatory report on Sino-foreign joint ventures for establishing the first joint degree program in China in 1987 (a master's of business administration with the Tianjin University of Finance and Economics) -- announced in May 2002 that “it has been invited to become the first American university to establish a campus in the People’s Republic."

"The OCU China campus will be part of the Oriental City of Universities, a consortium of universities located in Lang Fang, China, 30 minutes north of Beijing. It will be set on 65 acres, and will be built to OCU’s specifications.”

Asked about the fate of the campus last week, Vince Orza, the business school dean, had to dig up the information himself. He later clarified the matter over e-mail, indicating that leadership at OCU killed the project "upon further investigation, questioning." He added: “In short when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”


A Matter of Scale?

Other large-scale projects have also stopped looking so promising upon further investigation and questioning. In July 2006, the State University of New York participated in negotiations to open a 5,000-student campus, "SUNY-Nanjing," in cooperation with Nanjing University and the Jiangsu Provincial Government. Students would spend two years in China and two years at a SUNY campus. SUNY was expected to send over top-flight faculty -- cherry-picked from its campuses’ Web sites by Chinese government officials who identified specific senior faculty they wanted in Nanjing, said Ray M. Bromley, vice provost for international education at SUNY Albany.

Upon approaching the U.S. consulate, they were told “no way” would the consulate process an estimated 1,000 extra visas a year for students in the program as they headed off to SUNY campuses, Bromley recalled. How would consular officials know that the students ever intended to come back to China? (One of the requirements for a student visa is to illustrate “nonimmigrant intent.”) SUNY administrators were in the process of drafting a revised academic program that would include one year in China, two in New York, and then one more in China, so students would have to return to finish the program, before Kermit L. Hall, SUNY’s lead negotiator and the president of the Albany campus, died in a swimming accident.

Without a leader, “Questions began to arise. What would the New York Legislature think about this?” said Bromley. He pointed out that the Chinese provincial government, which would be paying for the campus buildings, had mirror-image questions from those of New York’s state legislators. While the Chinese wanted to know they’d be attracting first-class faculty and major investments, New York lawmakers would want to know that top-flight faculty were working with in-state students and that no taxpayer monies would be routed to the initiative abroad. “The net result is you’re educating people who are taking our jobs,” said Bromley. “That’s put in some crass terms, but imagine a provincial politician making a speech on the floor of the house.”

SUNY Albany accordingly redoubled its efforts at East China Normal University in Shanghai, where it maintains a number of collaborations. And on a systemwide level in Nanjing -- the SUNY system signed an overarching agreement with Nanjing University in 2005 -- eight students are currently enrolled in a pilot dual degree program in which students split their time between Nanjing and the SUNY campus at Stony Brook. Kavita Pandit, senior vice provost for the SUNY system, said it's her sense that there were never clear, precise plans for the 5,000-student proposed campus, which she described as "a really ambitious collaboration."

"It's a much more modest beginning," Pandit said of the Stony Brook pilot. "There is a lot of groundwork to make these relationships work. We have the vision -- now the hard work."

“We’re talking about small stuff now," added Albany's Bromley. "And I’m not sure the big stuff was ever feasible.”


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