What Can We Learn From China’s Emergence as a Global Higher Education Hub?

China’s success story is a useful point of reference because its way of building world-class universities and inviting foreign students has paid off.

This is the second of a two-part essay. The first – ‘If ‘Study in India’ Is to Be a Hit, We Must Get Right What China Has Perfected’ – is available to read here.

India has much to learn from China’s success in building world-class universities and becoming a global higher education hub. The first part of this essay highlighted two reasons behind China’s success in attracting large numbers of foreign students: the emergence of several well-ranked universities (including the Peking and Tsinghua Universities) and the incentives and the infrastructure that Chinese universities have built to make international students comfortable in their places of study and residence.

But China’s emergence as a higher education superpower has taken over two decades. Its aspirations to compete with Western universities led it to launch Project 211 and Project 985 in 1993 and 1998, resp. While Project 211 identified 100 universities for upgrading and establishing as research-intensive institutions, Project 985 aimed at creating 40 world-class universities.

There were massive investments in infrastructure, new programmes and in several other areas. The government committed itself to the idea that Chinese universities needed to emulate the great research universities in the US, with their focus on graduate studies, interdisciplinary research and research output. Over the years, Chinese universities hired the best researchers that money could buy – beginning with initiatives like the Hundred Talents Programme and the Changjiang Scholars Programme – from the Chinese diaspora in the US and elsewhere, as well as westerners.

It is now fair to say that China’s universities have grown in terms of research performance and stature by attracting a large amount of outside talent. This in turn has fed the growth of the number of foreign students in China.

India has just started out with its Institutions of Eminence (IoE) initiative, which has some similarities to China’s Projects 211 and 985, and began giving greater autonomy to its universities. Other higher education reforms are planned. India may finally be just giving itself the chance to develop more world-class institutions and, in the process, also attract more foreign students.

This may take longer than is commonly believed. And even if the IoE initiative propels some Indian universities into the list of top 100 fairly quickly, that alone may not be sufficient to bring 200,000 foreign students to India in the next five years. Again, the Chinese experience provides a useful guide to what India should be doing and whether or not it will be successful in reaching its target numbers.

China’s economic might

Even before Brahma Chellaney’s The Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan (2006) and Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (2008) were published, international affairs pundits were already taking note of the rise of Asia. With Japan already an established economic powerhouse, China and India were seen as representing the frontrunners in bringing about a shift of global economic power to the east.

Since then, China has established itself as a greater power, seeking resources, influence and more across the world. As a news report from 2017 put it, “In little more than three decades, China has transformed itself from a closed-off Asian nation mired in poverty to an emerging superpower that rivals the United States.” China’s footprints can be found almost everywhere in the world, including in the polar regions, and in all international and regional organisations.

Its economic size and global reach have created new opportunities for professionals and businesspeople, from within and beyond Asia, to work in China or with Chinese businesses across the world. Knowledge of the Chinese language and a ‘China experience’ are widely considered valuable assets for building careers.

The kind of opportunities that China offers is evident from a recent article in the journal Nature targeting Western academics’ professional aspirations. But it is not just academics and researchers who have been heading to China for better prospects. More than 900,000 foreigners worked in China in 2016 compared to just 10,000 in the 1980s. China has become a magnet for ambitious job hunters in a wide range of areas despite, or because, of its challenges. For example, American architects have benefited enormously from China’s construction boom and found opportunities that are unimaginable in the US. Beijing is today considered among the most exciting cities for enterprising expats. A survey conducted last year found that nearly 70% of foreign residents in China said they were happy with their jobs even though they had complaints about poor medical services, environmental conditions and their children’s education.

That being said, China’s job market is not easy to navigate even for those who have obtained degrees from the best Chinese universities.

India too has done rather well in terms of achieving high rates of economic growth and in the process becoming one of the largest economies in the world. Until recently, and to a lesser extent even today, India-China comparisons are not uncommon. But the truth is that China’s economy is five-times larger than India’s, which translates into greater opportunities for everyone, including foreigners.

However, it is also true that a larger number of foreigners work in India today than before because new opportunities have become available. But reliable data on the numbers of foreigners who have moved to India to take up skilled jobs is hard to come by. While India is both a top source and destination of international migrants, of the 5.2 million immigrants (2015) in the country, nearly 5 million are from neighbouring countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka – and are not part of the knowledge sector.

Still, despite polluted cities and their attendant problems, personal safety concerns and overall living conditions, India has attracted both overseas Indians and westerners, especially to cities like Mumbai, New Delhi and Bengaluru. Interestingly, expats living in India are among the highest-paid in the world. Unlike China, however, India has not done very well in attracting overseas Indians or other foreigners to work at its universities. There is hope that the IoE group of institutions will be more successful in attracting both overseas Indians and foreigners since they will not be constrained by University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations in terms of the salaries and benefits they can offer.

Tie-ups and standardisation

China’s economic size and its stronger global economic and diplomatic linkages have undoubtedly placed it in a better position than India to attract more foreign students. China’s cause has also been well served by international commitments, including ‘One Belt One Road’, a $900 billion investment designed to boost both land and sea trade routes that run towards Europe via Asia. The recent growth in foreign students is said to be linked to this initiative.

Overall, China leads over India in terms of hard power – economic and military – and, despite not being a democracy, also in terms of its soft power. Among other reasons, this is because China has used its resources quite effectively to boost its soft power. Nations and peoples around the world, despite their concerns about what China’s rise may mean for everyone, admire its achievements and would like to emulate its successes.

Economic opportunities by themselves, however, are not sufficient to attract a substantial number of foreign students. India would have done better than it has if that was so. There is no really no substitute for world-class institutions for a country to be able to do this. In addition, it helps to develop partnerships with prestigious Western universities, have more English language courses and standardise academic programmes.

To attract more foreign students and to improve the overall quality of education at its universities, the Chinese ministry of education is supporting the development of some universities as Sino-foreign joint ventures. Since the early 2000s, more than 2,000 such ventures have been established, including foreign university campuses. These include the Duke Kunshan University, the University of Nottingham Ningbo, the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, the Wenzhou-Kean University and the New York University Shanghai.

These ventures allow international students to study both in China and at the Western university. Many other Western universities operate within a Chinese host university. While there are real concerns about academic freedom at Sino-foreign setups as well as the long-term financial feasibility of these and related initiatives, they have certainly emerged as good options for foreign students looking to combine both Chinese and Western experiences.

Additionally, a growing number of Chinese universities have started to offer more courses and programmes in English to improve their appeal for international students. This is an area where India’s universities hold an advantage – but the advantage will matter only if its universities also offered a good quality education.

Finally, success with attracting more foreign students requires that the degrees be recognised outside the host country. More Indians are studying at Chinese universities because their medical and engineering degrees are recognised in India. The higher education system has to be adapted in ways that it allows foreign students to ‘carry’ the degree they have earned to their home country and even elsewhere in the world. The recognition issue is less of a problem for universities that enjoy high world rankings, although bureaucratic hurdles do crop up at times.

Another way to achieve the same result is through the mutual recognition of degrees by two countries, as has happened recently between India and France. In general, however, for smaller universities, there is certainly a greater need to design courses and programmes – in terms of content and duration – to be similar to those at Western universities to improve their chances of attracting more foreign students.

Foreign universities have a much-smaller presence – if it can be called that – in India than in China. As in China, the government does not permit standalone foreign universities, but unlike China, even join venture institutions are not permitted. The Indian model is one of twinning programmes, notably at private universities, where students complete part of their studies at their home institution in India and the rest at a foreign institution, typically one in North America, Europe or Australia.

There have been legitimate both about the quality of education at Indian institutions carrying out twinning programmes and about the quality of universities abroad with which twinning arrangements are in place. The UGC and the All India Council for Technical Education have established a set of rules in an attempt to address the problem. However, it is not known whether universities with twinning programmes attract more foreign students than usual.

Practical issues

Further, the more practical issues such as recruitment strategies and visas affect foreign students. China has done well on both fronts. Chinese universities have been aggressive in their recruitment drives abroad, and have been bold enough to venture into Western countries too. Earlier this year, 36 Chinese institutions booked space at the Student World exhibitions in Manchester and London. Such recruitment drives through exhibitions have been very successful in Africa because they make sufficient and reliable information about Chinese universities available to foreign students.

Advertisements, online and in local media outlets, also help inform potential students about universities, especially those less well-known ones. However, recruitment strategies can become more effective only when a country’s universities offer a good quality education at affordable costs or offer sufficient financial support.

Visa issues can also deter foreign students, though less so when a country º as is the case with the US, the UK, Canada and Australia – is a hotspot for higher education because it boasts of several world class universities and offers opportunities for employment. Security concerns and/or bureaucratic procedures can often slow down or even discourage students. With ‘Study in India’, it appears that the Indian government has recognised the visa issue as a problem and is determined to make it easier for foreign students to obtain student visas.

This discussion has highlighted only some of the challenges that India has faced, and continues to, in its quest to attract more foreign students to its universities. China’s success story is a useful point of reference because the its way of building world-class universities and inviting foreign students has paid off. Clearly, however, it was not possible to identify and discuss every issue of relevance and of those that were, not all could be given the same kind of attention.

Once a country builds a sufficient number of world-class universities, it becomes easier for it to attract more foreign students. What is also useful to understand is that once more foreign students start to head to a particular country, it becomes a trend and many others follow. China will soon reach that point where its best universities will not have to make too much of an effort to reach out to foreign students; the reverse will happen. Indian universities have miles to go before they reach that point.

Second, it is now commonly accepted that studying abroad has an overall positive impact on the development of a wide range of job skills, expands career possibilities and brings benefits in terms of career progression and promotions over the long term. India can reap the benefits of the ‘study abroad’ trend if it succeeds in building a dozen or more top 200 universities in the coming years.

Pushkar is director of The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula. He tweets at @PushHigherEd. The views expressed here are personal.