ELEVENTH-GRADER Jenny Yang has been prepping for her college entrance already, not only for next year’s gaokao, the national college entrance exam, but also to decide among the different options she faces — a domestic university, an overseas institution, or in between, a Sino-foreign collaborative program.
“My cousin, 10 years older than I am, told me it was already lucky to get into an exchange project, and very few people would actually study abroad, considering the difficult application process and the expensive tuition,” Yang says.
“It is much more common now, especially with collaborative programs. Most of my classmates are evaluating the three options, too. Our teachers have also briefed parents about the advantages and disadvantages of each.”
As China continues to ladder up on the global map, Chinese parents and students are also taking international experience into account for their education plans.
Collaborative programs that allow students to experience international curriculum and receive globally recognized degrees without much cultural shock and a less expensive tuition than going abroad has become increasingly popular in recent years.
When New York University’s Shanghai campus started recruiting last summer, some students even chose it over top Chinese institutions like Tsinghua and Peking universities.
Many domestic higher education institutions had long started exchange programs with foreign universities, some dating to the late 1990s and early 21st century, but it was only in recent years that collaborative programs grew rapidly both in terms of quantity and quality.
The programs have also expanded into second-tier cities, as previously most programs were in Shanghai and Beijing.
Some are local campuses of foreign institutions, while others are joint institutions located within Chinese universities. Most of these collaborative programs still require Chinese students to take the gaokao, while foreign applicants go through the more comprehensive Western application process.
The growing of such projects is a result of rising interest from both sides.
Chinese universities, encouraged by the Ministry of Education (MOE), hope to learn the best of Western higher education methods.
“When we founded the Joint Institution in 2006, State Council and MOE officials really encouraged us to experiment with the program in every possible way,” Peisen Huang, dean of the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute (JI), tells Shanghai Daily.
“The purpose is to explore and develop a world-class education and research institution in China, to provide the best state-of-the-art education for Chinese students, which can later be introduced to other Chinese universities,” Huang explains.
The foreign institutions, for their part, are keen on marking a flag in China, a country that has been increasingly important, financially and academically.
“The 21st century is Asia’s century and China’s in particular,” Tess Humphrys, a spokesman at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC), explains in an e-mail interview.
UNNC started in 2004 with around 250 students, and now has 6,000. Humphrys says that UNNC offers “a blend of a UK-style education mixed with a Chinese context.”
“What’s different here is context. We’re in China and it would be impossible to run courses that didn’t take that into consideration,” Humphrys notes.
How to localize the Western system, including the administrative structure and academic curriculum, is the biggest challenge facing these joint programs. “We designed the curriculum taking into consideration that most students would go overseas later,” JI’s Huang says.
Huang explains that each year usually a third of the sophomore class or about 100 students opt for the dual-bachelor degree, which includes two years of study at the University of Michigan. About 85 percent of the graduates go straight to grad schools, among which over 87 percent go abroad to the United States, and the majority of them are admitted to top-10 engineering schools.
“So one of the main goals was to design a curriculum that prepares students well for graduate schools around the world, especially in the US,” Huang says.
JI’s curriculum is essentially the 128-credit engineering curriculum at the University of Michigan, plus additional credits in English, political science and physical education — mandatory for all Chinese students.
JI has also changed the typical fall and spring semesters into a trimester system by incorporating a major summer program, in order to have professors from the University of Michigan and other leading US universities teach here in summer.
When the NYU Shanghai campus was opened last summer, questions were raised regarding academic freedom in China.
The institutions that had come earlier express confidence about this. “The courses at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center are not restricted in any way,” says Cornelius Kubler, American codirector of the center, an early joint program in China, established in 1986.
“Even the most sensitive topics may be treated in an academic context here at the center by the international and Chinese students,” she adds.
Australia’s Monash University, which has recently built a campus in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, in collaboration with China’s Southeast University, also doesn’t feel a restriction.
“Maybe it’s because of the nature of the courses that we are offering currently, we have not encountered issues regarding course material,” says university spokesman Glynis Smalley.
The institute’s curriculum mainly focuses on design and international business courses.
For some joint institutions, the goal goes beyond expanding its academic reputation in China. They want to build an international reputation to attract more high-quality students from around the world.
“JI is still not that well known internationally right now, but we have been sending people to US, European and Asian schools to promote ourselves to a more international student body,” says Huang.
“I can see the potential. In the future, international experience will be very important for students’ careers. For a country like China, whose economic power and global influence are rising up so quickly, there will be lots of interest among international students.”