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Outclassed in the East

The recent craze among China’s western universities to open branches or institutes in the east has exposed the huge economic gaps and uneven education resources between the regions

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

In pursuit of profits and prestige, an increasing number of universities in Western China are turning to the eastern seaboard, opening branches in its economically developed cities. Media has dubbed the trend “xixue dongjian,” which means “Western learning steadily moving east.” Originally used since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to describe the spread of Western ideas to East Asia, in recent years xixue dongjian has taken on a more literal, domestic meaning: China’s western universities moving east.  

In April, one of China’s top-ranked colleges, Xi’an Jiaotong University in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province and the UK’s Liverpool University broke ground on a new campus for their joint venture, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJLV) in Taicang, a city on the coast of East China’s Jiangsu Province. Just one block away stands a new campus of Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU), also Xi’an-based, whose construction began last August. 

This year, the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, signed agreements to open institutes in the cities of Quzhou and Huzhou, both in East China’s wealthy Zhejiang Province. The school’s institute in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong in South China’s Guangdong Province, enrolled its first postgraduate students in September.  

Research school Xidian University in Xi’an also inked an agreement to open a campus in the metropolis of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong. Xidian University is leading the charge east, opening six institutes in eastern China. Four completed construction in the past three years. 

While Lanzhou University in the western province of Gansu abandoned its plan for a campus in Nantong in Jiangsu in 2018, the school announced on May 8 it was hiring for its new institutes in Shenzhen and Shanghai. 

Although Chinese universities have steadily opened offshoots in other cities over the past three decades, observers said that western China-based universities began expanding to eastern cities following a central government program in 2017 that aims to develop 140 universities and departments into world-class institutions. Media reported that in the last two years, all seven western China universities listed in the government’s 985 program for building world-leading universities launched in 1999 have ramped up expansion plans. 

Go East!
Expansion began in the early 2000s when the Ministry of Education (MoE) encouraged Chinese universities and colleges to expand enrollment. Most top-ranking universities turned to rising southern cities like Shenzhen. 

Qingdao led a second wave of expansion in 2011. By the end of 2017, the city in Shandong Province had 21 branches of prestigious universities, including Peking University, Fudan University in Shanghai, and Beijing’s University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Yang Dongping, a professor of education at the Beijing Institute of Technology, told NewsChina that the expansion was buoyed by Qingdao’s mounting economic growth thanks to its extensive reforms. In 2017, Qingdao’s GDP ranked first in Shandong and 12th nationwide. That year, Qingdao was one of three northern cities with a GDP of over 1 trillion yuan (US$147.1b). The others were Beijing and Tianjin. 

As prosperous metropolises like Shenzhen and Shanghai have become saturated with university branches, the latest wave has turned to smaller satellite cities in the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas, two areas at the forefront of China’s economic charge. 

Taicang, for example, is the city nearest to Shanghai. It takes 30 minutes to drive to Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport. Though a county-level city, Taicang has three high-speed railway stations. Its science and education zone, where the XJLU and NPU branches are located, is nestled between Shanghai, Taicang and Kunshan, another important city in Jiangsu. 

Taicang’s government counted on these proximities to entice non-local universities. Able to attract overflowing talent from nearby Shanghai, Taicang is responding to the city’s emphasis on technological innovation, especially in intelligent manufacturing, biological medicines, AI and aviation. 

In October 2018, Taicang government signed agreements with NPU’s Yangtze River Delta Research Institute and the Center of Trial Flight for Civil Aircraft under the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) to train personnel. The county’s human resources office reached a similar training agreement with the NPU institute and Shanghai Satellite Engineering Institute. In August 2019, Taicang government released a plan to develop its aviation industry. That same month, construction began on NPU’s Taicang campus. 

“The [NPU]’s Yangtze River Delta Research Institute is taking advantage of talent overflow from Shanghai to deepen cooperation with businesses, and that cooperation is in turn enabling local industry upgrades,” a person working at the institute who refused to reveal his name told NewsChina. 

While Taicang is not the first Shanghai-adjacent city to focus on aviation, the recent arrival of universities has provided boosts in the technology and support needed to catch up. 

“In contrast to universities in Northeastern China that seek to expand in the south, universities in Western and Central China tend to go east. They prefer well-connected cities where there is high economic growth in the Yangtze and Pearl deltas,” Chen Tao, deputy director of the Institute of Development Studies, Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, told NewsChina. “The terms ‘integration of the Yangtze River Delta’ and the ‘Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area’ are frequently highlighted in the brochures of these universities heading east,” said Chen, who studies the development of universities in Western and Central China.  

However, because smaller cities have smaller economies, incentives such as large land allocations are not enough to attract universities as in previous waves of expansion. Instead, there is a focus on developing specialized departments and talent pools based on the industrial trends of city clusters. 

‘Double First Class’ Dilemma
Yuyuan Intelligent Technology, a virtual reality and AI company headquartered in Shanghai, is one example of how universities help promote local industries. On invitation from NPU’s Yangtze River Delta Research Institute, the company moved some of its sales and research personnel to Taicang. Li Chenyu, the company’s general manager, told NewsChina that their president, Yuan Yuan, is an NPU graduate, and the company was motivated by Taicang’s convenient proximity to Shanghai and the high employee saturation at their headquarters. According to Li, there have also been training exchanges with NPU’s software and network security departments. 

“The underlying reason behind the ‘head east’ craze is the shortage of talent,” Chen Tao told NewsChina.  

For years, media has reported on the gaps in salary and benefits driving the brain drain to Eastern Chinese universities. For example, universities in Guangzhou can offer attractive hires annual salaries of over 1 million yuan (US$147,059) plus bonuses to relocate, and even arrange jobs and education for family members. Chinese universities in the west can rarely offer such packages.  

Also, due to resource and economic gaps, talented professionals usually have better prospects for career development at an eastern university than a western one.  

“We attend the job fair organized by the American Economic Association every year and receive piles of resumes, but many of the people we pick are eventually poached by [more prestigious] schools in Guangdong,” Chen said. 

The poaching picked up in January 2017 after the MoE launched the Double First Class Plan. Intending to balance resource distribution to create world-class universities and faculties nationwide, the program instead intensified competition for talent between universities. Schools in China’s west were hurt the most. 

“Poaching talented staff from western universities is like cutting off their lifeblood,” education minister Chen Baosheng warned at a work conference on revitalizing central and western Chinese universities in March 2017. 

His warning proved correct in the MoE’s fourth appraisal in December 2017, which showed that western universities included in the first Double First Class list performed below expectation. Xi’an Jiaotong University, for example, saw its MBA program and management sciences department downgraded from A-plus to A and A-minus, while Xi’an-based Xidian University’s Information and Telecommunication Department was downgraded from A-plus to A. One of two listed western agricultural universities, Northwestern Agricultural and Forestry University in Shaanxi Province, did not have a single A-grade department, a worse showing than some of its eastern counterparts not included on the list. 

Because the appraisal is key to university rankings, western universities launched plans to expand east. 

“The trend to head east was spurred by the Double First Class appraisal. Universities in the west hoped to attract more talent and thus achieve more scientific advances by relying on the abundant resources of the east. That is their major motivator,” Yang Dongping told NewsChina. 

School expenditures made public for the Double First Class Plan laid bare the gap in spending power between East and West China. Beijing, for example, invested 10 billion yuan (US$1.5b) in local university departments focused on high-end and advanced technologies. Shanghai injected 3.6 billion yuan (US$529.4m) for the plan’s first phase (2017-2019), while Guangdong announced a 30 billion-yuan (US$4.4b) five-year plan, or 6 billion yuan (US$0.9b) per year.  

In contrast, Central China’s Henan Province allocated 300 million yuan (US$44.1m) a year, Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region 200 million yuan (US$29.4m) and Southwest China’s Guizhou Province 100 million yuan (US$14.7m). 

An education expert told NewsChina on condition of anonymity that the limited resources and smaller economies of governments in western China cannot offer the necessary financial support, while rich cities in the east can provide free land and even cover construction costs to attract western universities. 

“Western universities actually have no other alternative [but to head east],” he said. 

Tightened Policies
In 2017, the MoE issued a notice warning universities and colleges to be cautious about expanding. The document said that the MoE neither supports nor encourages opening inter-city branches, especially those offering general education for bachelor’s degrees. In 2019, the MoE reaffirmed their stance in an open reply to a proposal regarding universities opening inter-city branches from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). 

This May, Shenzhen’s education bureau revealed that the MoE ordered it to stop construction of the Wuhan University Shenzhen Branch. 

According to the MoE, common problems in inter-city expansion projects include unclear program focus, high costs and lack of teaching staff.  

“China’s net university enrollment rate reached 51.6 percent in 2019, which means that higher education is a public institution,” Jiang Zhaohui, a professor at the National Institute of Education Sciences, told NewsChina.  

“So, it’s time for government departments to rethink the inter-city branch trend to prevent reckless expansion, otherwise schools risk wasting resources and damaging their reputation,” Jiang said. 

Other interviewees said poor management between the universities’ main campus and branches was to blame. In the MoE’s reply it said many universities suspended operations of inter-city branches over a variety of issues. 

Despite the MoE’s controls, Chen Tao said expansion is unlikely to cool down in the near future. “[For western universities], going east is reasonable and logical and we can’t simply stifle it. The craze will not fade until the economic gap between the west and east gradually closes as the country’s overall economic development and reforms continue,” he said.