Since the beginning of this century, building regional education hubs has become a key trend in cross-border educational development. As a critical part of the worldwide internationalization of higher education, building an international higher education hub is regarded by the peripheral players as an important strategic opportunity. From the perspective of “glocalization,” it is essential for these players to employ differentiated strategies based on their comparative advantages. Under the “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” China is building an international higher education hub in order to play a more positive role in the international higher education arena.
The new motivation from BRI
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an unprecedented multilateral cooperation framework and also a domestic top-level strategy in the new chapter of opening-up and reform initiated by China in 2013. The primary goal is to achieve sustainable, inclusive growth and to integrate global resources through “five-in-one,” high-level interconnectivity in terms of policy, infrastructure, trade, finance, and peoples. Under the BRI framework, education is vested with dual functions. On one hand, education plays a very important role to consolidate people-to-people friendship. On the other hand, sufficient personnel training is the foundation for expanding cooperation in the other four aspects. There is strong willing in China to push forward to build an international higher education hub and take more responsibility in this process.
Stable policies. Building an international higher education hub is a systematic project requiring stable and long-term resource investment and policy support. In China, the internationalization of higher education has been embraced by policymakers and has been deepened through core policies. Objectively, under a political system characterized by power concentration, policy stability and continuity are much likely to be maintained.
Potential opportunity. During four-decades of development with unparalleled speed, the Chinese economy has been transformed to an innovation-based economy driven by a well-educated workforce and from a resource-based economy driven by cheap labor. In this process, economic and technological innovation has created new opportunities for professionals and business people from all over the world. The knowledge of China and relevant language proficiency are more widely considered valuable assets for individual career development worldwide.
Substantial quality promotion. Educational quality is the foundation of an international higher education hub. From the “211 Project” and “985” to the current “World Class 2.0 Project”, several measures have been taken to promote the quality of higher education. Although still limited, more Chinese universities can be found in the lists of university rankings. Several basic and applied research studies in specific fields have already touched new frontiers. Thanks to policies such as “The Thousand Talent”, overseas Chinese scholars have returned and become pillars of the academic community.
Strong geopolitical influence. Intergovernmental cooperation is a significant stimulus for the internationalization of higher education. South-south educational cooperation has been largely neglected. As the largest developing country, China not only strives to collaborate with the developed world but also pays attention to deepening diplomatic relations with other developing countries. Several regional, multilateral intergovernmental mechanisms, such as the BRICKS Summit and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, have been established.
Win-win. For the sake of reducing talent deficit, China emphasizes that educational cooperation should cater to a partner’s needs. Strengthening cooperation in fields related to bilateral projects and a partner’s industrial needs will create local opportunities to motivate an international student’s return. Top Chinese universities have been encouraged to launch overseas branch campuses with local counterparts or a third party. This can be a powerful trigger for partners to consider participating in an international higher education hub as well.
The expected outcomes and challenge
Compared with existing players from the Middle East and South East Asia, the Chinese scenario will be a multi-center hub system consisting of several sub-hubs with different functions reflecting the country’s rich geological and cultural diversity. In 2017, the strategic collaboration between the Ministry of Education and eight local education agencies was established covering aspects from platform construction to region or country-oriented research. According to the arrangement of functional areas, each sub-center is designed to serve specific economic corridors and strategic direction. The national government along with local governments has made a push to appeal to overseas students by offering a greater range of scholarships, especially for students from BRI countries, as a critical measure of support.
What’s more, global higher education governance is being reformed. In the traditional discourse of “center and periphery”, most of the peripheral players can’t cross the insurmountable threshold into the core players’ club. In order to change the fragmented structure, China, the largest country on the periphery, is striving to change the situation by engaging with peripheral players. An organized periphery is emerging with the potential for a huge collaborative network.
It is noteworthy, however, that several challenges should be overcome. For instance, according to the latest statistics, the imbalance between 128 overseas activities and more than 2500 domestic ones should be recalibrated by deregulation and policy support. The talents crisis caused by fierce competition in such a highly differentiated system could make irreversible damage to pillar HEIs in sub-hubs, especially the western ones, and the whole multic-enter system in the long run. It is imperative for education agencies to provide effective policy support to coordinate human resource distribution across HEIs. In addition, a universal education qualification framework and quality guarantee mechanism should be promoted to facilitate the integration of regional employment criterion.
China's plan for the development as an international higher education hub not only benefits from the strong driving force of BRI but is also rooted in unique comparative advantages. It creates overlaps with the needs of domestic development as well as global higher education reform but faces deep-seated, structural risks and challenges. No matter what the final result will be, it will be an historic attempt with great significance.
Hang Gao is researcher at the School of Education, Renmin University of China, P.R.C.