by Futao Huang

What do the international HE programme closures mean?

Professor Futao Huang looks at why international HE programmes are closing in China in University World News.

In early July, the Ministry of Education of China announced the closure of 229 internationally collaborative academic programmes and five internationally collaborative institutions. Normally these institutions and programmes are used as Zhongwai Hezuo Banxue in Chinese, meaning they represent co-operation between Chinese universities and foreign partners.

The government has attempted to reduce and terminate non-degree programmes carried out by Zhongwai Hezuo Banxue institutions since the early 2000s. Recently some undergraduate programmes, especially in business and management, have also been abolished. The numbers were quite limited, however. This time the situation appears to be more complicated and offers more profound implications for the future development of such institutions and programmes.

As early as the mid-1990s, internationally collaborative institutions and programmes began to emerge in China. National data shows that by early 2002 about 67 institutions and 72 programmes had been approved by the government that had the authority to award foreign degrees and degrees from Hong Kong universities.

As the Chinese government has, since the early 2000s, implemented several policies that encourage both local universities and foreign institutions to establish internationally collaborative universities and provide non-degree programmes, double and joint-degree programmes at various levels, the number of such programmes and institutions had reached 2,342 by June 2018. Among these, 1,090 institutions and programmes are qualified to confer bachelor and masters degrees.

Two main factors have contributed to the rapid expansion of these institutions and programmes. Firstly, as the gross rate of higher education enrolment in China was only around 12% of the 18-year-olds in the early 2000s, the government has looked to expand the Chinese higher education system and satisfy growing demand for higher education by increasing the number of students enrolled in internationally collaborative institutions and programmes.

Second, importing educational ideas, curricula and delivery of programmes, as well as governance arrangements, from foreign countries and Hong Kong universities was considered a quick and more effective way to improve academic quality and standards as well as facilitate internationalisation of Chinese higher education.

Business and management

According to the latest government announcement, approximately 10% of total institutions and programmes, including non-degree programmes, are no longer allowed to recruit new students as of July 2018. This accounts for more than 20% of China’s internationally collaborative degree-awarding institutions and bachelor and masters degree programmes.

These institutions and programmes range across 22 provinces in China and big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. A hundred of the programmes were provided in universities located in Heilongjiang province neighbouring Russia, 28 were provided by universities in Shanghai and 26 in Beijing.

Some 153 are bachelor degree programmes and 76 are masters degree level. With respect to disciplines, most (just under 80) are in business, accounting, economics and international trade, followed by around 40 in computer and information science and around 30 in engineering.

In terms of foreign partners, the largest numbers of programmes affected are those run in collaboration with United Kingdom universities (about 60), followed by those jointly developed and offered by Australian universities (about 45), Russian universities (nearly 40) and United States universities (nearly 25).

On the Chinese side, not only are local and small teaching-centred universities being asked to stop offering internationally collaborative programmes, but leading research-intensive universities are also being affected – nearly 80 leading universities, including Peking, Tsinghua, Zhejiang, Shanghai Jiao Tong and Fudan universities, have been asked to stop delivering some of their internationally collaborative programmes.

National control and quality

There are several reasons for the termination of these institutions and programmes.

First, unlike the period prior to the early 1990s when the central government adopted a laissez-faire policy, central government has been attempting to impose more direct and rigid regulation on internationally collaborative programmes and institutions since the late 1990s and especially since the early 2000s when they underwent a remarkable expansion.

A big focus for this has been quality assurance. For example, in February 2016 central government clearly stated that mechanisms for the elimination of internationally collaborative institutions and programmes that do not meet government quality standards should be strengthened.

This suggests that the Chinese government has shifted its policies from quantitative expansion of internationally collaborative institutions and programmes to a focus on quality.

It also indicates that these institutions and programmes need to be pre-approved or accredited based on national standards and they also need to accept periodic external evaluation, review or examination by the government while they are in operation.

In short, more comprehensive frameworks of quality assurance of such institutions and programmes have been effected. This is one of the most important reasons why so many undergraduate programmes have been terminated.

Second, as of 2017 the gross rate of higher education enrolment in China was nearly 47% of 18-year-olds. This means that Chinese higher education will soon move to the stage of mass higher education, according to Martin Trow’s definition.

Expanding the number of internationally collaborative institutions and programmes is not therefore considered to be as important as a way of contributing to the massification of China’s higher education system as it was in the early 2000s.

Because of the expensive tuition and fees charged by these institutions and programmes, it would be difficult, even impossible, for these institutions and programmes to attract the number of students needed to facilitate the realisation of mass higher education in China in a short time.

Third, the poor quality and unfavourable teaching and research conditions in many internationally collaborative institutions and programmes have been criticised by various stakeholders, including graduates, students’ parents, employers and the mass media. Many of the terminated programmes could not even recruit enough new students due their bad reputation.

The thinking is that low quality internationally collaborative institutions and programmes will not enhance the overall quality of China’s higher education, let alone upgrade the level of internationalisation of China’s higher education and its international competitiveness.

Finally, a huge majority of the programmes that will be terminated focus on business, accounting, international trade and management or MBAs, so very few contribute to China’s national development or promote the advancement of science and technology in China. So the mismatch between the delivery of these educational programmes and government expectations has become more obvious.

New rules

The Chinese government has implemented new policies with regard to operating and developing internationally collaborative institutions and programmes.

They include stipulations on good quality, on the provision of more STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – programmes at an advanced level, especially newly emerging disciplines that could help China improve its international competitiveness, and on undertaking collaboration with world-class universities.

These new challenges will inevitably affect the scale and quality of new internationally collaborative institutions and programmes in China in the future.

From now on therefore it is likely that China will adopt a more rigid and cautious attitude towards approving collaborations with foreign countries, although it will continue to encourage the expansion of good-quality programmes that are in keeping with national development plans. However, more direct control in the form of quality assurance and external evaluation will be imposed on these programmes.