How to Succeed in China

Research points to ways Western universities can position their programs.

February 26, 2016

Launching a successful transnational education offering in China is a holy grail for some Western university leaders -- and recent research may help map a path to this elusive prize.

According to one study, universities have a greater chance of securing the necessary approval from China’s Ministry of Education if they are highly ranked and European, affiliate with a Chinese university, do not opt to adopt a Chinese corporate form known as “legal person status,” and offer programs in IT, science or engineering.

The paper, “Transnational higher education institutions in China: a comparison of policy orientation and reality,” published in the Journal of Studies in International Education, also found that universities in countries that already have “economic relations” with China and that seek to establish transnational education outlets in developed regions of the country have a higher likelihood of being accepted.

The research analyzed the 64 transnational higher education institutions (TEIs) in operation in China in June 2015. It included an analysis of positions in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15 for the foreign universities involved in the transnational projects.

TEIs are defined in the paper as institutions that “deliver higher education programs in China, mainly to Chinese citizens, and require cooperation between foreign and Chinese higher education institutions.”

Recently launched ventures of this kind include New York University Shanghai and Duke Kunshan University, while the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus is a longer-established example.

Lan He, deputy director of the Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economics at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, who authored the study, told THE that she conducted the research because the selection criteria used by the Chinese Ministry of Education to grant approval for these institutions “are not openly available.”

She said the analysis showed that TEIs in China are “improving,” and that some of the newer outlets are “highly successful in terms of the volume of their recruitment, the students’ performance and the students’ career development after they graduate.” She also noted that the more recently established offerings have “assimilated themselves to the local culture” more effectively and “better cater to the needs of Chinese students,” while “still keeping the features of a Western education.”

In contrast, she said, older TEIs tended to be launched by “lower-ranked universities,” which collaborated with Chinese institutions in order to “increase their income from tuition fees."

However, a separate recent study from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education warned that future demand for foreign university programs in China is “uncertain,” owing to the predicted decline in the student population of China, and to growing prosperity within the country that enables more students to study abroad. It said joint campuses will have more chance of success if they can offer “a world-class globally oriented education with more Chinese relevance than one available overseas.”

“Numerous foreign universities rushed in to set up degree programs in Japan in the 1980s, only to see the number of college-age Japanese decline sharply in the 1990s and 2000s,” warned that study’s author, Andrew Scott Conning, a doctoral candidate and presidential fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Nearly all foreign branch campuses [in Japan] have closed.”

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