Rose-Colored Glasses on China?

One study finds Western universities rushing in without a plan. Another study questions institutes being created by Chinese government at universities worldwide.
December 7, 2007

With millions of students who want an American-style education (or an American diploma), China is a very attractive market for American colleges and universities that want to offer full degree programs abroad. Some institutions have been there for a long time -- Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University this year marked the 20th anniversary of their joint degrees in international relations. New programs keep being announced. The State University of New York at Stony Brook announced a program this year. Kaplan Inc., the for-profit higher education company, announced a major expansion of its China campuses just last week.

When college leaders talk about these efforts, you hear a lot of quotations from The World Is Flat, and excitement about the prospect of serving all of those students. But do American educators (as well as those from other Western nations) know what they are doing in China?

That's the issue raised by a controversial report released in Britain Thursday that questions the rush by academics to China. Much of the thinking by academics in Britain about the changes in China and how they affect the international higher education market has been "alarmingly woolly," says the report, "British Universities in China: The Reality Beyond the Rhetoric." The report's introduction notes that "reportedly one UK vice chancellor or pro vice chancellor a week has been landing in Beijing or Shanghai to explore future partnership opportunities. Yet there is no overarching strategy about what UK higher education should be trying to achieve." Authors of the report -- by the think tank Agora -- said that the comments applied equally well to the American institutions whose presidents and provosts are flocking to China in droves as well.

In Australia, meanwhile, a top scholar of Chinese affairs has issued a tough critique of universities that accept funds from the Chinese government to set up Confucius Institutes, saying that these institutes are a tool of Chinese foreign policy and should be viewed as such, not as educational exchange. The institutes being criticized in Australia are similar to those being set up by China's government at many universities in the United States.

So why all of the criticism of China's growing academic ties to the West? Some experts on international education are decidedly unimpressed with the critiques. Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, finds the new reports "somewhat naïve," especially in the way they view academic relations with China as something that must have a winner and a loser. "If China does not succeed economically, educationally, financially, we are all in trouble," she said. "We should be doing everything we can around the world to make sure that China's higher education system is benefiting from all of our institutions."

Others, however, said that the criticisms were right on target and deserved the attention of American academic leaders. "We are, I hope, entering worldwide into a phase of a little bit more realism about what internationalization can and should mean," said Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College.

The most damning part of the Agora report was written by Ian Gow, pro vice chancellor (sort of like a vice president in American academic nomenclature) of the University of West England and formerly the founding provost of the University of Nottingham's campus in Ningbo, China. An Asian studies expert in his scholarly career, Gow writes that he strongly favors more education about China and -- properly set up -- exchange programs. But he said that the problems he saw first-hand, and that he said don't get talked about in public, hinder the kind of exchanges that truly benefit everyone.

For example, he said that joint degree programs end up being effectively run by the Chinese partners, without an equal role for the Western universities. He writes that the answer to every point of contention is "Beijing said no," and that Western universities have little bargaining power once they have agreed to create a program.

"When the new venture has attracted publicity, suddenly your exit costs become very high: you are risking alienating a very powerful country and driving away Chinese students who might come to your university," he writes. He adds that the difficulties of recruiting enough professors to work in China means that the programs there offered by Western universities do not in fact reflect the standards of those institutions in their homes.

Further, Gow argues that China is trying to build its capacity in higher education to compete with the top Western universities for all kinds of students and research support. He notes that so many English programs are being created that westerners can study English for less money in China than in Britain. And he says that China is building up programs with the aim of being "the new global hub for higher education," in a way that would lead more of its top students to stay home for advanced training, rather than going to the West.

In an interview Thursday, Gow said that while he wrote his article for a British audience, it "absolutely" applied to American colleges and universities as well. "I don't think people are thinking enough of the potential future threat of the higher education hub being moved to China," he said. "I think a lot of people are going in for PR's sake. It's far too much looking at it through rose-tinted spectacles."

Gow said that what academics don't realize is that the "balance has changed" from the days when a few American universities had the capacity to start something in China, and that country saw so much to gain that it approved good deals. Now, there are so many players going in that "the Chinese control it more." He stressed that he wasn't saying "don't go to China," but "go to China with open eyes," and he predicted that if Western universities do that, they won't rush to set up campuses.

While Gow's analysis is just out, a diplomat-turned-professor in Australia has generated attention with her critique of Confucius Institutes being set up around the world to provide language and cultural programs and education in Chinese. Jocelyn Chey, in a report and talk, said that these institutes are about portraying "soft" power by China and that they risk "dumbing down" education about the country or producing propaganda. Chey declined to release her study about the institutes, but it was covered by the Australian press and a podcast of a talk she gave is available here.

Calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington's press office and education office were not returned.

But Blumenthal of the IIE said she was troubled by the way Sino-academic relations were being characterized. She said that the Confucius Institutes weren't really different from the Goethe Institutes sponsored by the German government in many countries, or similar efforts by many other governments. "This is cultural outreach," she said.

As for the criticisms of American universities going into China, she said that Gow was correct that these relationships don't come together overnight or make a lot of money. "There's always a problem of matching the expectations of the two parties in any of these programs," she said. Western universities do need "realistic expectations," she said.

But she took issue with the idea that there was something wrong with China trying to play a key role in these relationships, and asked whether U.S. officials would just let foreign institutions set up campuses in the United States without serious oversight. "To me, this is legitimate," she said.

Blumenthal also rejected the idea that China is competing with Western institutions for students. It's "a very different kind of student" from China who goes to the West as opposed to staying at home, she said. "The number of students around the world, including in China, that are seeking higher education, is growing exponentially and there are not enough seats in all of our institutions to house these people," she said.

Leaders of American institutions with significant presence in China also reject the new analysis. Edward Guiliano is president of the New York Institute of Technology, which has offered an M.B.A. program in China for nearly a decade and is now starting a full undergraduate program in cooperation with Chinese educators. He said that it does take time to set up programs, but that this is doable, and that while institutions will not become wealthy, the programs can support themselves if they are of high quality. "We would not have gone into this if we didn't think it would be self-sustaining," he said.

He said that NYIT is able to assure high quality by involving faculty members from its New York campuses and being creative, with some positions based in China while other professors make frequent, shorter visits to participate in the programs. He said that the Chinese government's push for a strong say in all of these relationships is appropriate. "Yes it makes it harder and the government regulations sometimes change," he said. "But they are being protective of their students and I applaud that."

Altbach, of Boston College, said he agreed with the criticisms being raised of Western ties to China -- even while believing that these programs are important. "This isn't about China or China-bashing," he said. "Internationalization is great, but you have to look at what you are doing and why you are doing it."

He said that many of the relationships being set up these days are not with the top Chinese universities, but with those further down. "There are only a small number of top universities, and there are not enough to go around," he said. "How do we assure that the programs we offer over there are delivered with the quality we want, and do our partners have that in mind? Or do they want a foreign partner as the flavor of the month?"

Similarly, he said that the Confucius Institutes aren't doing anything wrong per se -- and that teaching more students about China is good. But he said that people should realize that this is much the same as various State Department programs abroad that provide good educational opportunities -- and that have the explicit goal of making people feel good about the United States.

What's needed all around, Altbach said, is more realism. "So long as you understand why the Chinese are in this game, it's fine," he said. "There's nothing wrong with it, but you've got to recognize it for what it is."


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