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Lesson in Cooperation

Chinese-foreign cooperation in the tertiary sector offers Chinese students a chance at a first-class international education without leaving the country

By NewsChina Updated Mar.6

Sino-foreign joint schools and programs play an important pioneering role in Chinese education. Every year, millions of Chinese students sit for the college entrance examinations, or gaokao, to compete for a limited number of places at prestigious universities. Students can now get an international education without leaving the country as an alternative to top-flight domestic universities or as another option when their gaokao grades do not secure them a place at the country’s highly competitive, top-ranking institutions. These new kinds of universities have mushroomed in China over the past decade and are being incorporated into Chinese education reform.
According to the Regulation on Chinese-foreign Cooperation in Running Schools (CFCRS), released in 2003 by the State Council of China, foreign and Chinese educational institutions can establish cooperative schools and programs in China to provide education services predominantly for Chinese citizens.
The cooperation has two forms: one is cooperative institutions and the other is cooperative programs. Cooperative institutions, with the status of a legal entity, have a board of trustees or a board of directors. Up to now, nine such Sino-foreign joint venture universities have been established. Cooperative programs, without the legal entity, have simply a joint managerial committee. According to research on the CFCRS conducted by the Center of Research on Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools at Xiamen University (CRCFCRS), the number of joint institutions and programs at existing education institutions has burgeoned, and was up to 2,572 in 2017 from just 71 in 1995. 
The University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC), the first Sino-foreign University, was established in 2004 in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. The UNNC is run by the University of Nottingham in the UK and Zhejiang Wanli Education Group, a key player in China’s education sector. According to professor Shen Weiqi, Vice Provost for External Relations at the university, the Chinese partner is mainly responsible for the school’s basic construction, security, governmental document approval, logistics services, and public relations. The British partner focuses on academic and teaching activities, including curriculum design, textbooks, and the evaluation system. Learning and teaching resources are identical to the UK system. But in light of the different university cultures and backgrounds, there is no cookie-cutter model to manage a school or program, Xi Youmin, executive president of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), told NewsChina. 

Diploma Mills 

As a relatively new phenomenon in China, questions from society were inevitable. In the first few years, these institutions and programs were often dismissed as “diploma mills.” Aside from questions about their reputation, some stereotyped the schools as elitist, while others saw CFCRS-compliant universities and programs as an option reserved for young people not talented enough to get into prestigious Chinese universities, but with enough money to buy their way into a foreign one. Joint programs typically charge annual fees anywhere from 45,000 yuan (US$7,043) to 160,000 yuan (US$25,041), much higher than tuition fees in Chinese universities which are around US$1,000 annually (China’s average monthly wage was around US$1,200 in 2017). 
Students on the programs disagree. Instead of going directly abroad after the college entrance examinations, students see CFCRS universities and programs as a good launch pad for future overseas study. Teachers and school managers dismiss the stereotypes about the CFCRS model. They portray themselves as educational innovators, since the Internet, online education and other new technology-based educational models are changing and challenging traditional education, and it is imperative to reform, Xi Youmin told CBNweekly. 
“CFCRS is becoming an established market segment in Chinese higher education,” said Chris Rudd, Provost of the UNNC. So, why does China support the new educational model? What are the merits of CFCRS? Lin Jinhui, head of Xiamen University’s CRCFCRS and director-general of the Association of Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools at the China Association of Higher Education, said CFCRS would fuel Chinese education to be a center for global education. But it remains to be seen if CFCRS will help realize such an ambitious goal.
Driven by economic globalization, the internationalization of higher education is inevitable, and the increasingly high demands of the global economy fuel the drive for ever-higher standards of research, skills and professional talent to meet it, UNNC Provost Chris Rudd said. In 2004 when the UNNC was founded, the Asian century was dawning and it was clear much of the growth was to take place in China, creating a huge higher education market, Rudd said. 
“China is the fastest-growing country, with development happening in front of our eyes, and we want to be part of this exciting growth,” professor May Tan-Mullins, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at UNNC, told NewsChina.
Neighboring countries that recognize the importance of China as a future trading partner have increased their interest in Chinese education, and have developed a greater awareness of China as a host country for transnational education, with an increasing number of foreign universities entering joint venture arrangements, Rudd said. 
The development of CFCRS-based education, Lin said, is closely related to China opening up its education sector. For instance, the Ministry of Education proposed in 2016 that countries along the Belt and Road Initiative work together to promote high-level educational cooperation. And a series of international activities has been held to facilitate global educational exchanges. According to Lin, by the end of 2016, 188 countries and regions had built relationships of educational cooperation with China, and agreements to mutually recognize academic diplomas had been signed with 47 countries, alongside educational cooperation agreements with 46 important international organizations.
Moreover, when Chinese policymakers released the “Double-First Class” initiative, a plan to construct “world-class universities” and “world-class disciplines” by the end of 2050 in an effort to make China an international higher education power, Lin stressed that the reputation and social impact of CFCRS-compliant education will be improved during the process. CFCRS plays an irreplaceable role in the construction of “Double-First Class” by making international academic exchange more frequent than ever before. 


CFCRS’s admission standards for Chinese students are in fact strict. In the UNNC, all Chinese students must undertake an entrance examination, and according to Provost Chris Rudd, 46 percent of the intake comes from the top 10 percent of the gaokao pool. “Students in the CFCRS can compete with the most excellent students in the world after finishing three or four years of education at a CFCRS [institution or course],” according to Xi Youmin, the XJTLU’s executive president. 
“We put the student at the center of our planning and delivery. The voice of each student is important to us. We run small classes and focus on reflective learning. 

Students are encouraged to challenge and to innovate, to work in teams, to study a broad curriculum and to consider social responsibility. We provide students with a good understanding of Chinese culture and ideology but we also educate them as global citizens to understand China’s growing influence in the world order,” Professor Rudd told NewsChina. 
Student-oriented education is scarce in China, said Xi, who regards the CFCRS model as a shock to the Chinese traditional tutoring system. According to professor Edie Allen, who teaches American Academic Writing at Duke Kunshan University, Jiangsu Province, at first her Chinese students were quiet when she asked questions and the class atmosphere was subdued, showing the difference between Chinese and Western education. Proffessor Allen also told CBNweekly that Chinese teachers tend to directly pass knowledge on to students, with students taking up their pens and writing down key points, whereas in group classes, students have to prepare lessons and questions beforehand. That discussion, rather than tutoring, was the best way to encourage students, she said. 
In a bid to create an atmosphere of independent learning, Sino-foreign universities provide many small seminar rooms for students to use, and in public spaces and the library there are lots of face-to-face couches and large round tables for students to sit together and discuss problems. Distinct from teachers in Chinese traditional education that assigns homework to individuals, those in CFCRS education tend to separate students into groups and require the whole group to finish one project, asking students to present to the class. CFCRS teachers regard this model as one which cultivates students’ skills in cooperation, coordination, communication and self-expression. 

International Experience at Home 

Compared with Chinese universities, UNNC Vice Provost Professor May Tan-Mullins says the most attractive thing about CFCRS education is the balance and blending of East and West and the combination of the best practices and expertise from both worlds. The CFCRS universities and courses offer a unique space to cultivate students with internationalized skills, perspectives, and opportunities.
“Chinese students are shy about giving out their opinions in other traditional Chinese courses, but at UNNC you have to say your ideas in class; otherwise you cannot get a good score in terms of classroom performance,” Zhang Enyun, a junior student who majors in International Relations at the UNNC, told NewsChina. Tang Hongyi, a graduate of XJTLU, stressed the school takes plagiarism seriously, with those who cheat incurring strict penalties.
Based on the interactive teaching model and strict academic standards, students who graduate from a CFCRS course outperform their peers in language skills and employment opportunities. “Comparatively speaking, students who have graduated from the XJTLU are confident in their occupational skills. Immersed in the English-language environment, students from the XJTLU can speak English much more fluently than their Chinese peers. Especially, they have professional skills in presentation, and they are not afraid of talking with leaders or bosses,” Ruby Ru, human resources director of Glanbia, a global nutrition group, told NewsChina. 
The UNNC’s 2016/2017 annual employment quality report shows that by December 1, 2017, the respective employment ratio of undergraduate students, postgraduates and PhDs was 97.4 percent, 93.7 percent and 100 percent. About 81.5 percent of students with a master’s degree are taken on by State-owned enterprises and well-known firms at home and abroad, and average a pre-tax monthly income of around 9,510 yuan (US$1,486), around double that of counterparts who earn 4,765 yuan (US$745), according to Zhilian Recruitment, one of China’s leading recruitment websites.
With the UNNC’s own enviable record in student employability, as one of its students, Zhang Enyun, told NewsChina the school provides enriching international volunteer projects and internships. Zhang said he took part in a volunteer teaching program in Cairo, Egypt when he was a freshman. “In the project, my oral English improved a lot. I did not worry about the ability to coordinate and cooperate in group work because I practiced such skills daily at the UNNC. Furthermore, students from the UNNC dared to ask questions. All in all, I can put the knowledge and skills I learned at the UNNC into practice,” Zhang said. 

Thanks to strong links with international universities, there has been a dramatic increase in applications from students from outside China. Mutia Hanifah, an Indonesian sophomore majoring in Applied Chemistry at XJTLU, told NewsChina he had broadened his horizons by mingling with Chinese and foreign friends, and was particularly amazed by the XJTLU system of study that adopts the UK education system. Hanifah was glad to see his English writing skills improve due to the wide range of modules.
Also, many foreign teachers are willing to work for a university endowed with internationalized elements. Dr. Paul Cheung, director of the Applied English Programme, shared his experience at XJTLU, saying that he has been very impressed by how students of a Chinese educational background have responded to different styles of teaching at the university. While these students were initially not familiar with some of these styles, they quickly learned to adapt, and were thereby trained for further studies outside of China. Some academics have also developed new styles while teaching classes made up mainly of students from a Chinese background. “These are just some of the signs of the internationalization of teaching at XJTLU,” said Dr Cheung.
The number of international students at XJTLU is rising year after year. There were only 34 foreign students during the 2012-2013 academic year, but five years later, the number has reached 745. Executive President of XJTLU Xi expected the number would rise to 1,000 the following year.  

Regional Disparity 

But CFCRS education is not without problems. One major challenge is its regional disparity. According to Lin, by September 2017, nearly half of CFCRS courses are concentrated in eastern China, and northeast China is home to just over a fifth. China’s central and western regions are home to only a fifth and a tenth of these joint universities. The main reasons for this are the stronger economic performance of eastern China and financial or policy support from local governments, XJTLU’s Executive President Xi said. 
As of November 2016, engineering and management accounted for 36.8 percent and 25.9 percent of the courses offered; other modules such as agriculture, law and history make up less than two percent. In terms of diploma categories, 81 percent of cooperative programs are designed for undergraduates, and 18 percent of projects are aimed at postgraduates, with only one percent being doctorates.
To balance education between developed and underdeveloped areas, CFCRS institutions have generously contributed their educational models to local and remote schools. The UNNC Provost Rudd told NewsChina they regularly host school visits for education, sports and cultural activities. XJTLU’s executive president Xi told CBNweekly that there were monthly teacher training programs held by XJTLU for other universities, and courses included how to tutor students and how to strategically develop school administrators. In 2015, staff from more than 150 universities attended XJTLU’s training, according to reports.
Lin said the quality of teachers is key to pushing the development of the CFCRS model. The quality of teachers in CFCRS education has improved recently, but Party news portal the People’s Daily in July 2016 released a report about the development of CFCRS courses from 2010 to 2015, stating that in some cases, the problem of cutting faculty costs and reducing the threshold of teaching qualifications still exists.
Lin proposed five brief suggestions. Firstly, there should be an evaluation system to assess teacher qualification. A system to blacklist poor performers is also feasible. The second is to adjust and optimize the structure of faculties from the perspective of the length and experience of teaching, the age of teachers and their titles. The third is to establish cooperation and exchange mechanisms for teaching research between Chinese and foreign educational institutes, such as holding overseas training or joint training. The fourth is to simplify examination and approval systems for establishing CFCRS courses and institutions and ensuring the autonomy of funds for teacher education and scientific research. The fifth aspect is to establish a successful experience-sharing mechanism, which in part would be a benchmark for future CFCRS education in the region or even around the country and could provide Chinese experience and wisdom for global education management.
But the XJTLU’s Executive President Xi said that the evaluation system and career path are different in each Sino-foreign institution and program. “We separate the criteria into three parts. The first 40 percent goes to research achievements and another 40 percent goes to teaching performance, while the rest goes to academic administration. 
All teachers, including Chinese and foreign teachers, have to follow the same rules,” Xi told NewsChina. The UNNC’s teaching evaluation, performance management and promotion systems are identical for academics in the UK system, UNNC Provost Rudd said. 

Besides, given their different backgrounds, it is not easy to wed Chinese and foreign cultures, teaching methods and curricula into one institution. According to the People’s Daily, there will be divergences in core values and teaching standards when foreign schools have higher requirements, and Chinese schools do not have sufficient budgets to meet them.
“When faced with such a problem, CFCRS ventures have to make clear what the orientation of the education is. Both Chinese and foreign educational institutions should say what foreign and Chinese educational models can be applied at a CFCRS venture and what models cannot be used, and eventually reach consensus,” the XJTLU’s President Xi said, but generally CFCRS institutes and courses just copy foreign models if there is no negotiation, he added.
Nonetheless, CFCRS schemes provide inspiration for China’s higher education reform.