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The University of Groningen had grand plans for a branch campus in China. One of the oldest and largest universities in the Netherlands, Groningen planned to create a broad research university in the northeastern Chinese city of Yantai that would eventually enroll 10,000 students across a range of bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. programs. In 2015, the university signed a tripartite agreement with its partner institution, China Agricultural University, and the city of Yantai, which agreed to cover construction and renovation costs for the campus and to cover budget deficits. Groningen would have joined a small number of Western universities -- including Duke and New York Universities in the U.S. and the Universities of Liverpool and Nottingham in the U.K. -- with a full-fledged branch campus in China.

It was not to be. Groningen’s board announced late last month that it would not proceed with plans to offer Groningen degrees in Yantai, citing “insufficient support” for the plan from the University Council, an elected body composed of half faculty and staff members and half students. In the case of the China campus, the council did not just serve in an advisory or consultative capacity: instead it had what a university website describes as “the right of consent to the definitive decision to found a branch campus in Yantai.” University Council members explained that their consent was required for the university to gain final approval from the Dutch government to grant degrees in Yantai under the terms of a new law on transnational education.

University Council members said the reasons for their opposition varied, with some opposing the campus due to concerns about restrictions on academic freedom in China and others having more practical objections to the specifics of the plan. A report from a University Council commission charged with evaluating the business plan for the campus describes a number of practical concerns, including worries about the adequacy of the budget, which was to be subsidized by the local government, insufficient support for the Yantai campus among faculty in two of the six programs that would initially be offered there, and the lack of a clear exit strategy.

According to the commission report, withdrawal from the 30-year agreement was only possible due to a situation of force majeure, breach of contract or by mutual agreement, and a potential exit scenario after four years could only occur in the case of mutual agreement or through an arbitration decision from a court in Hong Kong.

The commission largely sidestepped the hot-button issue of academic freedom, devoting just a paragraph to noting that there are different views on the matter and asking readers to judge for themselves.

Ultimately, the report concludes that "there are a number or risks that have not been sufficiently thought through" while the benefits to Groningen were, for the most part, "difficult to quantify." Among the benefits that were discussed in the report were new resources and possibilities for research and for student mobility, as well as a potential rise in Groningen's international recognition and position in university rankings.

"The commission supports internationalization but sees too little added value in setting up a branch campus, relative to existing initiatives, to justify the efforts that the branch campus entails," the report states.

The head of the commission, Olaf Scholten, a professor of nuclear physics, said he concurred with the commission’s conclusions. Scholten said that his additional worry was that the university would not be fully reimbursed for the time its faculty and staff spend on the Yantai campus, with potential negative effects for the education and workload in Groningen. He acknowledged that this is a soft argument -- he cannot prove it will be a problem -- but the possibility concerns him nevertheless.

"The thing that worries me is that in order to achieve this, there’s a large flow of money going from the local government into this branch campus. My concern is that the reimbursement that the University of Groningen can receive from this would be under pressure," he said.

Bart Beijer, the chair of the University Council’s nine-member Personnel Faction and a policy officer in educational affairs, where he deals mostly with quality assurance and elearning, said it had become clear that the majority of council members opposed the plan. For some, he said, academic freedom and human rights issues were the main reasons, while others had doubts about the benefits for education in Groningen and the level of faculty support for the project.

Beijer said that he was not personally among those who opposed the plan. “Unlike the others I was prepared to wait a few months for a better plan,” he said. But he had a number of worries. These included “the risk of underestimating the workload for Yantai back in Groningen,” “the lack of benefits for the educational programs in Groningen” and “the continuous costs to keep up the quality of the programs in Yantai. Although it was said that Yantai would pay these costs, the budget as it was known to us looked insufficient.” Beijer said he was also worried about “the lack of support by those (two out of the six programs planned to start in Yantai) who had to do the most of the work.”

Henk-Jan Wondergem, a member of the University Council and chairman of the student party Lijst Calimero, similarly said insufficient faculty support for the project was a decisive factor in his party -- which has five members on the council -- coming out against the campus. “The most important reason was the fact that the same degrees were offered in Yantai and in Groningen, and we did not have the confidence with the plan that was there that the quality of education could be ensured, which threatens the value of the diplomas in Groningen here,” he said. “That had to do with a lot of technical underlying factors, relating to the budget, reacting to how much staff will come from Groningen to Yantai, and how soon new staff would be hired by Groningen in China.”

Wondergem also said the student party was concerned about issues related to academic freedom and plans to appoint a Chinese Communist Party secretary to the Yantai campus board. In a November statement, Groningen’s president, Sibrand Poppema, said that the university would protect academic freedom and independence and that the Communist Party representative on the board would have no control over programs. A memorandum of understanding between Groningen and China Agricultural University on the establishment of Yantai Groningen University states that “in accordance with the higher education laws and regulations of China and the Netherlands, academic staff and students at Yantai Groningen University shall enjoy academic freedom and an autonomous and independent academic environment.”

“In the end, I think it really boils down to if you are going to have a really intensive intercultural cooperation, how much of your own values are you willing to give up,” Wondergem said. “That’s a really personal choice. For us we said we think offering our degrees, our diploma from a Dutch university which is 400 years old under a university which is run by a party secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, is just too far. It’s just a step too far. It crosses a line that we do not want to cross.”

By contrast another student party, the Student Organization Groningen -- which also has five representatives on the University Council -- was in support of the Yantai campus. “We saw it as a very positive and interesting opportunity for the university,” said Zeger Glas, the chairman of the party. Glas said he saw benefits “in terms of international reputation and recognition -- which could lead to an influx of more and better students, more and better staff and research funds” as well as “opportunities to study in a high-quality program in China.”

“We found those advantages were definitely weighing up against the disadvantages or risks that we would take when we would set up the campus,” Glas said.

Joost Herman, a professor in globalization studies and humanitarian action and head of Groningen’s Department of International Relations and International Organization -- and a strong supporter of the Yantai campus plan -- criticized the University Council for “only seeing obstacles and not seeing opportunities.”

“U Council has basically focused on the practicalities of the implementation of these four bachelor of science programs that will be the first ones on offer at the campus in Yantai, and in my opinion, the ones with real experience in China, academic experience, were simply not consulted.” Herman argued, in effect, that the Council focused in fine detail on practical questions of implementation “while missing out on the bigger picture.” (Scholten, the head of the University Council’s commission on the Yantai campus, said the “University Council has consulted several experts inside and outside the university with experience in China” and that as such the commission did not repeat the exercise. The commission’s charge, he said, was primarily to examine the business plan for the campus.)

“What disturbed us,” Herman said, “was U Council, wonderful colleagues who normally give advice to the Board of Directors, due to political pressure they were catapulted into this position of co-decision, whereas normally they are in a kind of advisory role. I do believe that strategic decisions that have effects for the next 20 to 30 years should be at the level of the board.”

“By not going there we now completely cut off the possibility of influencing the next generation for the next decades to come who will be the rulers, so to speak, of Chinese society,” Herman said. “We are throwing away an enormous opportunity to make an effect, to make an imprint.”

Spokespeople for the University of Groningen did not respond to multiple requests for interviews with the president, Poppema, or another senior administrator. In a statement about the decision not to offer Groningen degree programs in Yantai, Poppema left open the door for other future activities there: “In the near future we will investigate, together with the faculties and degree programs, which other forms of collaboration are possible in Yantai,” he said.

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