American Universities Opening Up Shop in China -- Sino-Foreign Joint Education Ventures

05/10/2015 01:32 am ET | Updated May 09, 2016

Lillian Foote discusses how foreign and domestic universities are linking up in China to create new learning environments.

Along Century Avenue, a major street in the heart of Shanghai's Lujiazui business district, there stands a sleek fifteen-story glass and concrete building. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and crisp sharp contours the structure blends into a long string of neighboring commercial skyscrapers, sharing the same skyline with landmarks like Jinmao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center. But far from being the headquarters of a multinational corporation, this building houses the facilities of NYU Shanghai, a brand new university co-established in 2012 by New York University and East China Normal University.

In the fall of her senior year of high school, San Francisco resident Megan Hou applied early decision to NYU Shanghai, a choice that surprised many of her friends. While most of her classmates were applying to schools close to home in California, Megan was drawn to the university's yet-to-be defined character. At the time she applied, NYU Shanghai did not have any set campus, alum, or even an established curriculum.

NYU Shanghai is one of several universities recently established in China as a joint higher education institution between an American university and a partner Chinese university. In 2014, Duke University followed NYU's lead, co-founding Duke Kunshan University with Wuhan University in Kunshan, a city in China's southeast Jiangsu province.

These schools, formally called Sino-foreign joint-venture universities, are emerging to fill a gap in the global education economy. The number of Chinese students applying to universities in the U.S. has seen a dramatic rise in the last few years, increasing by 75 percent over the last three years to an impressive 275,000. While Chinese demand for international higher education continues to grow, many Chinese students are in search of a less expensive alternative that does not require going abroad to study.

"Most joint-venture campuses are about educating Chinese who can't afford to go overseas," explained Deborah Davis, a sociology professor at Yale. Major American research universities like NYU and Duke are accommodating this demand by establishing their own joint-venture universities, providing them direct access to the brightest students in the ever-expanding Chinese education market while strengthening their international presence.

From a geopolitical perspective, China has much to gain by opening its doors to Sino-foreign joint-venture universities. Ever since Reform and Opening Up began in the late 1970s, China has prioritized educational exchange with the West as a way of developing its own industry, science, and technology.

"When China returned to the global stage, it really wanted to appear to be a global power, but it didn't have enough human resources that could [facilitate] dialogue seamlessly with an international audience," explained Dr. Heini Shi, director of International Relations at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, one of the first Sino-foreign joint-venture universities established in China in 2006. "China's seeking some universities that can bring in some know-how and intellectual power."


These Sino-foreign joint-venture universities may boast distinctly modern facilities in a bustling urban setting, but the typical day of a student at a Sino-foreign joint-venture university shares many similarities with that of an American university student.

On a Wednesday morning at Duke Kunshan University Chinese student Mike Tang gets up and heads to DKU's Conference Center for his Social Research Methods seminar, taking a seat by the classroom's glass-paneled wall where he can get a view of the campus greens. Most of DKU's undergraduate classes have only 10 to 15 students, creating an intimate learning setting that stands in stark contrast to Mike's home university, Nanjing Medical University.

Like most Chinese public universities, Nanjing Medical University only offers lecture-style courses due to the overwhelming number of enrolled students. "[At Nanjing Medical University,] the professor can't directly hear one student's voice, explained Mike, whereas "at DKU the professor gives every student the chance to give their thoughts, to hear what they are thinking about."

After heading to lunch in the dining hall, a rectangular room encased in glass where students cluster around small café tables to eat and chit-chat in a mixture of Chinese and English, Mike attends his American History lecture where his professor reviews his assigned readings in painstaking detail. Mike's last class of the day, Population and Environmental Dynamics Influencing Health, is a discussion-driven seminar that begins with each student giving an individual presentation on an academic article of their choosing.

While a diverse course load similar to Mike's is offered at many American liberal arts institutions, the multicultural background of DKU's students weaves a uniquely international perspective into class discussions.

Mike recalls the disparate opinions he and his classmates shared when talking about marriage in his Population Influencing Health seminar. His Indian classmates discussed the troubling social practice of child marriage in their country, something that shocked Mike and his fellow Chinese classmates. In a comparison of Western and Eastern marital practices, Mike noticed that "sometimes Chinese and Indian [students] would share similarities...we talked about the old tradition where the parents of the girl should pay the guy's parents", a custom that his American classmates did not support.

Complicating this discussion was the acknowledgment by Chinese students that China's economic modernization had begun to reshape Chinese social expectations, potentially encouraging urban Chinese to actually adopt a traditionally Western perspective. "In modern cities in China, the guy's parents or the guy himself should spend a lot of money on a house, on a car...if you don't have [these things] I don't think a normal girl would like to marry you", chuckled Mike.

Could such a classroom discussion, like the one described by Mike, take place within the walls of an American university? Thinking about the discussions I had in my own Global Health class my freshman year at Yale, I remembered how often my classmates and I struggled to understand or accept different cultural practices to which we had no previous exposure.

Mike, however, was constantly coming into contact with a diverse range of cultural backgrounds in his everyday life, whether he was sharing a room with his Indian classmate, attending panels on China-Africa relations with Tanzanian friends, or playing pick-up basketball with some American students.

The benefit of a truly international student body, however, also brings inherent barriers to fostering open discourse among students in class, a communication problem that challenges the academic goals of DKU. Since all of DKU's classes are taught in English, which the school requires its students to have fluency in, differences in English proficiency levels often creates a skewed class dynamic.

Florence Tesha, a sophomore at Duke from Tanzania who spent a Global Learning Semester at DKU this past fall, recalled how many of her Chinese classmates in her Global Health Ethics class would participate very little in class because of a lack of confidence in their English speaking skills.

"Chinese students were afraid that people would judge them, so they would want to speak in Chinese," Tesha remarked. In an effort to promote more equal participation, Tesha's professor adjusted the class seating arrangement, having international students with high English proficiency sit in groups with Chinese students, an exercise that simply resulted in Chinese students discussing amongst themselves in Chinese or international students dominating English group discussions and presentations.

While the class eventually settled on a discussion format in which Chinese students had the option of discussing in Chinese and then reporting back to the rest of the class in English, this solution meant international and Chinese classmates did not share their initial thoughts on a topic with each other, taking away an unfiltered aspect from in-class discussions.

Beyond a simple language barrier between students of different English backgrounds, Tesha noticed that cultural miscommunication also had a large influence on how she interacted with her classmates. Drawn to studying in China out of an interest in better understanding Chinese people, who have been migrating in large numbers to Tanzania over the last few decades, Tesha quickly learned that many of her Chinese classmates considered directness when speaking rude. "I felt that most Chinese students, even when they felt something was wrong, or they were offended or maybe disappointed, they didn't really say it and it made it harder for me to interact from then on because I kept asking, 'Are you okay? Do you have something to say?'," Tesha explained.

Tesha also could recall certain casual conversations when students brought up a topic that accidentally illuminated their different cultural prejudices in an uncomfortable way. The most striking example of this occurred one day at lunch in DKU's dining hall when a Duke international student pulled up an online news story that reported on ivory tusks being smuggled into China from Tanzania, found on Chinese president Xi Jiping's airplane.

Before Tesha could respond, a Chinese classmate at the table immediately dismissed the story as false, declaring that China would never steal from Africa and was only helping lift up one of its impoverished countries. Angered by this nationalistic point of view, Tesha's Kenyan classmate retorted that China's apparent charity for Africa disguised its exploitation of Africa's resources. "I was trying to act like I was in a neutral position because I had Chinese friends there and they weren't going to take any of me saying, 'It's Chinese people that are responsible'", explained Tesha.


Mike Tang is sitting in a white linen chair in a Kunshan hotel's banquet hall, a cavernous room that features four droplet chandeliers and quilted beige walls. He and his ten classmates have formed a circle in the hall's center with their chairs, trying to create a sense of intimacy in this makeshift classroom. While golden carpeted floors and a podium at the front of the room lend an official air to the small class discussion, Mike's class is talking about a photo that Chinese officialdom has banned from public display.

In it a lone man stands before a column of Chinese military tanks, his head just reaching the height of one of the vehicle's steamroller wheels. This is the iconic "Tank Man" photograph, taken the morning after June 4th, 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre that dramatically weakened the Chinese Communist Party's political legitimacy on the world stage. "As a Chinese student we don't have too many chances to know about this photo...I never really got a chance to know what happened at that time", explained Mike.

The open discussion of a politically taboo event like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on a college campus in China may surprise many Americans. Many members of the American academic community doubt that Sino-foreign joint-venture universities can foster academic freedom under China's authoritarian regime, warning that the Chinese government has remarkably stringent regulations over colleges and universities in order to maintain the Party-state's stability.

Mike's classmates, however, not only learned about the Tiananmen Square protests while in class but also were able to express radically different political opinions about the event with each other and online.

One classmate with a particularly outspoken viewpoint was Pranav Sridhar, an Indian student from Shiv Nadar University in New Delhi who spent a Global Learning Semester at DKU this past fall. With his deep clear voice and animated speaking style, Pranav immediately strikes his classmates with an enthusiasm to participate. "Pranav is a special type", chuckled Mike. "He can be full of energy all the time, and I think many other students don't show the same passion (as he does)".

When discussing the Tank Man photo in class, Pranav took a very outspoken stance, declaring that it represented a tragic event. Intrigued by the symbolic importance of depicting a single man standing in opposition to the entire Chinese state, Pranav published an article on Duke's student website exploring the strategic use of individual figures to mobilize group acts of defiance throughout history.

Pranav's confidence in openly sharing his politically controversial thoughts while living in China can largely be explained by the academic freedom DKU provides its students. "It was a very open, inclusive learning environment for all of us. We were allowed to express ourselves openly, keeping in mind respect for everyone's backgrounds", Pranav explained.

Although DKU's administration did not interfere in the publishing of Pranav's article, sensitivity toward classmates' reactions did affect the way in which Pranav approached such a politically charged topic. Pranav's Chinese roommate had warned him that publishing the article may make him unpopular among some of his Chinese classmates, a consequence that he weighed for a long time before moving forward.

Pranav also noticed that in-class discussions at DKU initially had a more formal atmosphere than at his home university in New Delhi. Since DKU's students were coming from universities all over the world to spend one fourteen-week international semester together, the combination of a lack of familiarity with each other and a highly diverse range of cultural backgrounds made students weary of being too outspoken. By the time the second half of the semester began, Pranav admitted, "I'm not so sure if we had reached the comfort level where if you're from China and I'm from India I could ask, 'Dude, how can you not have democracy in China?'"

For Tarela Osuobeni, a junior at Duke who spent a Global Learning Semester at DKU this past fall, the lack of restrictions on what she could study at school allowed her to explore academic subjects that were publicly off limits in China. In her Chinese class Tarela chose to give her final presentation on Hong Kong's recent Umbrella Revolution, a series of pro-democracy protests that directly challenged the Chinese government's restrictions on the city's Chief Executive elections. Although TV and Internet coverage of demonstrations was strictly censored in mainland China, as a DKU student Tarela was provided with a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, that enabled her to access blocked Western media sites following the unfolding movement. When I asked Tarela if she thought DKU was succeeding in maintaining an academically free environment while operating in China, she didn't seem to think the question was relevant. "What happens in the school stays in the school. China's the type of place where, if nobody says 'Don't do it,' then it's okay to do it even if you know that this could possibly be against the law".

In her observation Tarela had identified the gray operational area DKU occupies in China; while providing a safe learning space for its students to freely pursue their academic interests, DKU has had to negotiate its academic freedom in terms that are acceptable in China's current political environment. By not openly challenging the Chinese government's politically repressive practices, DKU can maintain a high degree of autonomy, keeping in mind that the spirit of intellectual curiosity it strives to uphold may not be as well received beyond the physical boundaries of its campus.


In July 2010 China's Ministry of Education published its National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development, a document which laid out a comprehensive plan for modernizing China's education system over the next 10 years. Commonly referred to as Blueprint 2020, this proposal included the ambitious goal of helping China's elite research universities "reach or approach the level of world-class universities" within just a decade.

Indeed China has been searching for new strategies that will help it attain its goal. This past December the Chinese central government convened a committee of administrative experts to offer ideas on Chinese higher education reform, inviting NYU Shanghai Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman to give a speech on his own recommendation.

Praising NYU Shanghai as an innovative model of higher education, Lehman attributed much of the school's success to its newness. "We are able to innovate and take risks because we are an institution with no past", he mused.

But far from suggesting that well-established Chinese universities were incapable of achieving the same success, Lehman identified Sino-foreign joint-venture universities as the ideal site for experiments in higher education that inform China's efforts to improve its own higher education institutions.

"There is a desire on the part of our sponsors, [the Shanghai government], for us to model a different way that then may be emulated or not", explained Lehman. As China continues to regard higher education as an essential tool for moving up the economic value chain, it will be interesting to see whether the examples set forth by Sino-foreign joint-venture universities like NYU Shanghai and Duke Kunshan University will be used to initiate concrete change within a still developing Chinese education system.