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One Belt One Road towards a China-led Higher Education area?

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Guangzhou, China’s third biggest city

As China includes higher education, science and research in the mix of its massive One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure and trade project with Asia, Europe, the Middle East and East Africa, a China-dominated global higher education area could emerge, an international seminar of experts heard last week.


By Yojana Sharma

However, it is still early days for China’s Marshall-Plan-like megaproject, which was initiated in 2013, with investments of upwards of US$5 trillion. Full implementation will depend on long-term strategic planning by the Beijing government and how long Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be around to push his pet internationalisation project, experts said.

In infrastructure [China] is leading the world, in higher education it surely has that capacity as well,” William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard University, told the international seminar on OBOR and higher education at Utrecht University in the Netherlands on 19 March.

“From the beginning the research and innovation dimension of the Belt and Road initiative has been built into this process, in particular through a plan for international technology.”

“It could be the building block for a global research area because it includes countries not always included,” said Wim van den Doel, a member of the executive board of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, NWO. “OBOR can connect China to the world,” he said.

Just as OBOR – shorthand for the Silk Road Economic Belt from China to Europe in the North and the Maritime Silk Road crossing between Asia and East Africa to the South, covering some 65 countries in all – has the potential to reshape international trade as it connects economies along its route, it also has the potential to reshape global higher education, said Marijk van der Wende, professor of the faculty of law, economics and governance at Utrecht University, Netherlands.

“The size of China’s higher education and R&D system, and the speed at which it develops both of these to global standards, will affect that of its regional partners as well as that of its global competitors,” said Van der Wende, coordinator of an international research consortium on implications of OBOR for higher education and research, particularly in Europe.

“China is willing to take the lead in economic globalisation and seems determined to restore its central place in the world,” she said, adding that cooperation in higher education is a major component of the new relations being developed.

China could fill the Trump and Brexit gap

With more inward-looking policies in the higher education powers like the United States and United Kingdom, a new configuration in higher education is more likely than before.

“Brexit and the US, under Donald Trump, turning its back on multilateral trade and cooperation, are creating waves of uncertainty in higher education with regard to international cooperation and the movement of students and academics and the rest,” Van der Wende said. “This will affect the global landscape.”

China’s world domination plan built on high speed rail.

“The hostile policy towards Chinese scholars and students in the US by the Trump administration would help a switch or speed up cooperation between Europe and China,” agreed Nian Cai Liu, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at UCL Institute of Higher Education in London, said with transformative investment in transport, communications, water, industrial agriculture, city development and energy it is “hard to see how higher education and science could stay out of it, in the longer run”.

It could “come to mean Chinese universities setting up branches in the Belt and Road countries, and it might mean new universities being developed, on the basis of a China model of university,” he said.

OBOR and higher education

Currently the OBOR initiative’s main activity in higher education is providing scholarships to students in countries on its route, to study in China.

Some 10,000 scholarships were available for students from OBOR countries last year, mostly from developing countries. China has also stepped up language training courses within China in Southeast Asian and other languages where OBOR projects are being promoted.

Executive MBA courses have also been launched by Beijing’s Tsinghua University for business leaders from OBOR. Other initiatives include China’s Xiamen University in Malaysia, planned before the OBOR initiative was launched but now described as serving OBOR projects in Southeast Asia.

OBOR has also changed the role of Chinese-foreign joint venture universities “not as a mechanism to bring in educational resources [into China] but as a mechanism for going out – pushing Chinese educational programmes to those countries of the Belt and Road,” said Jie Gao, a researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Futures at Denmark’s Aarhus University.

OBOR and Europe

Compared to developing countries and countries in Southeast Asia, where China has set up the Asian Universities Alliance, and in Central Asia and North Africa where new research centres and institutions have been launched such as a new China studies centre in Astana, Kazakhstan, and a joint institute between China’s Ningxia University and Morocco’s University of Hassan, higher education and research cooperation with Europe under the OBOR banner is still discussed in terms of ‘potential’.

The Belt and Road initiative will provide an excellent platform for further cooperation between Europe and China in higher education and research,” Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Liu noted, though he pointed out that so far most cross-border collaboration activity was around research rather than higher education.

While several experts at the seminar underlined the need for mutual respect for each other’s higher education systems, it was clear Chinese higher education with the state “front and centre” may not sit well with universities in Europe that cherish autonomy and academic freedom.

It is unclear how this new relationship will affect European research,” said the Dutch research agency’s Van den Doel. “There are a lot of concerns about academic freedom [in China], so dialogue is important.”

But he acknowledged there was room for more European Union projects with China. “China cannot do many things on its own such as big science.” Another area is global challenges where interdisciplinary research is required to solve major problems such as food and energy security.

China is often weak on social science and interdisciplinary research, with its higher education institutions concentrating heavily on science, technology and engineering research.

“The European Commission wants to step up research collaboration with China on big projects. Already some thematic research areas implemented under the EU’s giant Horizon 2020 research fund have had co-funding from China’s science and technology ministry,” said Philippe Vialatte of the European Commission’s research and innovation directorate in Brussels.

With the beginnings of a research and innovation dimension being built into OBOR and its reach into Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa, the OBOR initiative “can also be used to boost Europe-China science and technology cooperation”, Vialatte said.

Though in the past some Chinese research institutions cooperating with EU research programmes “have not been so transparent”, Vialatte said, “we are discussing a proper mechanism to avoid discrepancies.”

Shanghai Jiao Tong’s Liu noted that universities in China, the US and Europe had more in common than differences and said: “The differences will do no harm to China cooperation with Europe.”

Vague concept

With OBOR so vaguely defined, new international higher education and research collaboration projects can be ascribed to the initiative, the experts noted, making it easier to build a higher education area around OBOR cooperation as a shared community “with Chinese characteristics” and strongly pushed by the Chinese leadership as a long term-scheme.

OBOR “means many, many different things… anything you want it to mean,” said Frank Pieke, director of the Leiden University Asia Centre in the Netherlands. “Even projects started before the initiative are often described as OBOR projects.”

OBOR should not be thought of as a Chinese government policy or agenda or in terms of institutions; rather it is vacuous political slogan that in part “signifies allegiance to the top leader” and is a “political ticket” or clubcard to the Chinese sphere. “It means China first,” Pieke said.

With OBOR being so closely tied to the current Chinese leadership, despite the extension of President Xi Jinping’s term as leader, agreed this month by China’s National People’s Congress at the annual session, experts warned that medium- and long-term research and higher education projects may not necessarily be secure.

Referring to Maoism and the destruction of the universities during China’s chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s which saw the country’s universities closed for almost a decade, Harvard University’s Kirby said “one worries about the governance, and structures as Xi Jinping is now reinforcing Maoist ideas, and reinforcing strongly the role of the Party in the classroom at virtually every level but particularly in the humanities and social sciences.”

Can China lead global higher education? I think it can, and I think it will, but not in this way,” Kirby said.

UCL’s Marginson noted: “If China is to lead in higher education, it will need to build social sciences and humanities… better than it has done so far.”

“We will need to engage with China in the full way in which China has already engaged with us. In that respect, the universities of North America and Europe will help to determine if China’s universities succeed, whether China can lead in higher education.”

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