Education forum highlights the importance of partnerships with China

Lingnan University recently hosted a roundtable discussion on the theme of “Creating a New Destination Market” as part of the QS Higher Education Summit China 2022.

The international online event took place on April 14, giving high-powered speakers the chance to examine issues surrounding student mobility, research exchanges, scholarship funding and partnerships between institutions at a time when diplomatic tensions and fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic have brought all kinds of new challenges.

In particular, the speakers were asked to consider whether there is a “paradigm shift in the making”, how universities in Hong Kong and China have taken steps to circumvent current obstacles, and how they can now best position themselves as destination markets offering overseas undergraduates and research students the courses, support and opportunities needed to go on to successful careers.

The basic statistics show that almost half a million international students chose the China region as their study destination in 2019. And despite all the disruption since then, that number has remained relatively stable over the past two years.

However, other significant factors have also become apparent. For instance, admissions from some “source countries” are rising, while from others they are in decline. More courses are being tailor-made specifically to attract overseas applicants. Universities within the region are making increased efforts to export certain education models. And many of the top minds in the “knowledge economy” are now focused on what else it will take to sustain success as a major study destination and research partner in competition with the established markets of North America, Europe and Australasia.

In setting the scene, Professor Leonard K Cheng, President of Lingnan University, firstly noted that Hong Kong’s universities still face some operating constraints in admitting non-local students. These relate predominantly to UGC funding for undergraduate programmes, with a cap of around 20 per cent on mainland or overseas students, who have to pay higher tuition fees.

Besides that, though, there are also self-financed and taught postgraduate (TPg) programmes, which are within the university’s overall mission and for which tuition fees are in effect determined by market competition.

“We’re also working to establish joint schools or colleges [with partners in the Greater Bay Area] to enrich students’ learning experience and tap into the possibilities for research and co-supervision of PhD students.” Cheng said. “The rise of China in terms of education and research capability will be the key driver for partnerships and student mobility. I see global education as a pyramid. For PhD programmes, the US will still be dominant, but for undergraduate, master’s and professional programmes, China will move up this global pyramid as the ‘local knowledge’ aspect starts to count more.”

Elaborating on the factors which have helped China to attract more international students, Professor Wenqin Shen, Associate Professor at Peking University’s Graduate School of Education, pointed to three main reasons. The first is generous scholarships at national level. The second is “cheap” tuition fees, most notably for disciplines like medicine and engineering and, especially, when compared with universities in the US and Britain. The third is the work done to build an extensive network of former international students ready to recommend China as a study destination to colleagues, contacts and classmates.

“The rankings of China’s universities are rising very fast, but employers in countries in East Asia don’t really recognise that yet,” Shen said. “However, when they go back home, many students find better-paying jobs more easily because of their links with China and their ‘language capital’ which gives an advantage in the labour market.”

One pressing challenge, though, is how to extend STEM research partnerships with overseas institutions. This results from the current sensitivities about anything high-tech, particularly in dealings with the US and its closest allies.

“The number of science, engineering and computer science students going abroad has decreased very fast in the last two years,” Shen said. “Some are choosing Hong Kong, the UK or Singapore instead of the US, but we also have to find more positions for them in China.

Professor Shalendra Sharma, Associate Vice President (Quality Assurance and Internationalisation) at Lingnan University, expressed general confidence that the longer-term trend will see a beneficial expansion of two-way exchanges. This will be helped by the fact that China has an increasing number of world-class universities winning a reputation for advances in engineering, nanotechnology and green technology.

Students from countries like India and Bangladesh view that as a major attraction, while many more in the traditional western economies can also see how the world is turning.

“The rise of China as a consequential global player will continue,” Sharma said. “Most leading mainland universities now offer curriculums in Chinese and English, so transferring credits is not that much of a problem. But we are also trying to send some of our students to places off the beaten track, such as Jilin province, so they appreciate the differences and learn more about the country’s history and culture.”

For Professor Anthony Welch. Professor of Education at the University of Sydney, it makes good sense to leverage partnerships that clearly benefit students – both in- and outbound – and faculty members, and various research initiatives when China is doing so well in areas like robotics, AI and new high-grade materials.

“It strengthens both sides,” Welch said. “The world of knowledge is changing, and particularly in the field of science and technology, Chinese universities are now hugely competitive and often world-leading. It is evident that some Chinese colleagues may not apply for grants [that restrict mainland participants], but we will have to see how that pans out.”

Unfortunately, Professor Lionel Ming-Shuan Ni, Founding President of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Guangzhou), was indisposed on the day and therefore unable to take part in the discussion.

In other conference sessions, though, Professor Joshua Mok, Vice President of Lingnan University, contributed to a lively discussion on the topic of growth and opportunities, while two Research Assistant Professors, Dr Daisy Zhu and Dr Youliang Zhang, took part in a panel looking at the key subject of “Exporting Research” and how current practices and new initiatives are likely to develop.