• RUG opens university in Asia

    Remade in China

    The University of Groningen will be opening an International Branch Campus in northern China, possibly as soon as next year. In collaboration with China Agricultural University, the RUG aims to eventually teach 10,000 students at a campus that has been ready and waiting for over a decade.

    in short

    As soon as 2016, students could be pursuing a RUG degree at the China Agricultural University (CAU) branch in Yantai.

    Yantai is a city in northern China with a population of 1.8 million.

    A campus with room for 10,000 students already exists but has been scarcely used for over a decade.

    That’s because branch campuses of Chinese universities were no longer allowed by the time construction was completed.

    In 2013, University College Dublin was poised to enter a partnership with CAU but that also fell through.

    In China, the first year at university is a preparatory year for students to transition from high school to college. Dutch students would be exempt from it.

    The branch campus will be financed entirely through Chinese sources, and the RUG will never be responsible for paying rent.


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    The International Branch Campus will be in Yantai, a small city by Chinese standards with 1.8 million residents – nine times more than the population of Groningen. The campus is already built, including a gargantuan academic building that almost seems like a mirage.

    ‘We arrived with the bus, and the building got bigger and bigger. And then we walked to the building, and it got bigger and bigger’, president Sibrand Poppema recalls. It’s twenty stories tall and spans 750 meters. It has 100 classrooms and can hold up to 16,000 students. The structure is in the middle of a 110-hectare campus in the Laishan district, one kilometre from the Bohai Sea between clusters of high tech firms and skyscrapers.

    The campus is roughly as big as the entire Zernike complex. It also includes space for a library with foundations already laid. It will be similar in size to the Linnaeusborg – with plenty of study space, Poppema jokes.

    Sporting facilities already exist, but Poppema says they need to be adapted for international standards. A couple of streamlined housing towers have room for 10,000 students, resembling batteries ready to be charged.

    Too good to be true

    Poppema admits that it all seemed too good to be true. ‘That is why we went to see it in person. The funny thing is, everything was even better than I thought.’ He describes the opportunity with words like ‘providence’ and ‘lucky’: ‘The train came along, stopped for a moment, and we could enter.’

    It appears to be a bullet train: Poppema got a phone call six weeks ago, and today, it’s official. ‘We want to make a smaller copy of the University of Groningen.’

    This evening, president Poppema is signing a tripartite agreement with Yantai city, China Agricultural University (CAU) and the University of Groningen. The event is part of a trade mission with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and a team of Dutch business representatives to China. In April, a delegation from the city of Yantai and China Agricultural University will be visiting Groningen to see what the RUG has to offer.

    Government and academic figures on both sides of the landmass are supportive – and fully aware – of the plans. Education ministers in the Netherlands and in China are on the same page about the joint effort, and Poppema says he has spoken with the deans of every RUG faculty and the University Council twice already: once before the trip at the end of February and once upon returning. Getting the rest of the university involved in the plans as early as possible seems to be the goal this time around.  


    These plans began a short six weeks ago. President Poppema says he got a phone call from a fellow rector in England, suggesting a joint university with China Agricultural University might be worth considering for the RUG. On 27 February, Poppema and a delegation from the RUG (Jasper Knoester, Tjalling Halbertsma and Wang Li Zheng, an alumnus of CAU who works for the Energy Academy) were touring the campus in Yantai.

    Yantai’s position in China

    Yantai is one of China’s third-tier cities, which broadly refers to size, GDP, and infrastructure  . First-tier cities are the biggest, like Beijing and Shanghai, and the second-tier cities are typically provincial capitols. The definitions are flexible, though: for example, Yantai has an economy larger than the Shandong provincial capitol city of Jinan.

    Like many other third-tier cities, Yantai is positioned on the coast and has a lot of unoccupied residential property – 7.9 million square metres of housing stands unsold . But plans for improving accessibility by train from nearby cities are intended to bring more people to Yantai, and in 2016, construction on the world’s longest undersea tunnel – twice as long as the Channel Tunnel between England and France – should begin between Yantai and Dailan across the Bohai Strait. Work on an artificial island across the strait is also underway, meant to become the location of Asia’s largest airport .

    CAU has two campuses in Beijing with 20,000 students in total and an annual research budget of around 140 million euros. The school focuses on the so-called beta faculties in particular, emphasizing sciences and engineering. Groningen’s role would be to fill the largely empty and unused facilities in the city of Yantai which currently only teaches around 900 students.

    There’s a reason for that. CAU had two opportunities that fell through over the past few years. In 2003, CAU began developing a third campus in Shandong province. Land was bought and the city of Yantai invested in the buildings, but the rules of the Ministry of Education had changed by the time they were ready to recruit students: it was no longer allowed for universities to have campuses in other provinces.

    The second incident that now seems set to become the RUG’s gain was in January 2014. CAU was on the verge of entering into a joint university arrangement with University College Dublin. They signed a contract for the plans in December 2013 – one month later, the Irish university college appointed a new president who, in Poppema’s words, ‘had other priorities’ with a different university in China. It wasn’t to be.

    Joint effort

    Now, Groningen is stepping in. The possibility exists for the first Groningen Yantai students to begin taking classes as early as 2016. That may seem quite fast, but in China, the first year of university education is a preparatory period for students to make the transition from high school into college. That year, during which they take English classes, study mathematics, chemistry, physics ‘and a little bit of Marxism’, would be mostly CAU’s responsibility.

    ‘We would take part in the first year in the English courses, but it would be wise to rely on them because it is a joint effort. We do it together, but it’s our programmes,‘ Poppema says. Dutch students would be exempt from the first year classes, but some non-Chinese students will be required to take them. ‘It depends on the home country,’ Poppema says. ‘We have a list in the Netherlands of which nationals have sufficient high school and English levels to be admitted.’

    Aside from contributing to the English language classes, the rest of the first year education would be provided by CAU. For the next year, Groningen would enrol students into classes with curricula that have already been developed here. Eventually, an instructional staff of around 600 will be needed to teach it.

    ‘More international’

    ‘I hope to have two people from each education programme in Groningen as well as some additional people who will go every once in a while for short term teaching sessions and supervising research groups there. We will need to recruit people from the Netherlands and internationally to work there’, Poppema says. He also believes the campus may present an opportunity for postdocs looking for an academic career.

    ‘We do it together, but it’s our programmes’
    The biggest distinction between existing branch campuses and Groningen’s plans is the intention to work primarily with international lecturers instead of filling the staff with Chinese educators. ‘The new people can be Dutch, European, American or returning Chinese, but not only returning Chinese.’

    Poppema says Groningen’s Chinese campus would most closely resemble the University of Nottingham Ningbo and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University , two of the largest branches in China. ‘But what I’ve seen at Nottingham and Liverpool is they have a very high percentage of returning Chinese staff, and we want it to be more international.’

    The University of Nottingham Ningbo opened in 2005 and currently has 6,341 students. It occupies a campus of 59 hectares and has a positive fiscal balance. Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University – which opened in 2006, has 7,060 students and a smaller, 40-hectare campus – is also in the black.

    According to Poppema, that is attributable to tuition fees hovering around 12,000 euros for the branch schools. That fee is fairly high, but at other branches, the government substantially subsidizes Chinese students to bring the costs closer to the median, which is between 2,000 and 4,000 euros a year. The Yantai branch would charge a price slightly under other branch schools, and the campus is roughly twice as large as the British branches.

    Another difference in Groningen’s approach is a stronger focus on master’s and PhD degrees than on predominantly bachelor degree education like Nottingham and Liverpool so far. The plan is to eventually attract 10,000 students: 7,500 bachelors, 2,000 masters, and 500 PhDs.

    Captions: President Poppema’s arrival is projected onto a movie screen; the location of the campus in the midst of skyscrapers; the cafeteria, which has been mostly empty up until now. 

    Educational differences

    Poppema says that because of CAU’s position in the top ten per cent of Chinese universities, the Groningen Yantai branch will be able to recruit among the best students in China. But to say that education standards in China are different from the Netherlands is a serious understatement.

    The Chinese education system is still largely based on rote learning: memorization, recitation and examination. Poppema says that there is a desire within China to move beyond that and teach in a more western style that enables students to work with what they have learned. Chinese Vice Minister of Education Hao Ping is very supportive of making this a possibility in Yantai, Poppema says. ‘He has indicated that it could be done with unprecedented speed.’

    Unlike the Netherlands, there is no shortage of college-aged people, nor will there be in the coming years. As of 2012, there were 293 million Chinese people between the ages of 5 and 18. University enrolment numbers have jumped from one million students in 1998 to around seven million in 2012, and competition to get into the top schools is fierce.

    ‘It could be done with unprecedented speed’
    The one child policy makes the future prosperity of a family’s only offspring a critical investment. High schools dedicate their senior year to classes strictly focused on the gaokao, the national college entrance exams . Tens of thousands of students and their families, particularly from rural areas of China, move to Maotanchang to attend a test prep school and spend years, not to mention thousands of yuan, studying from 6 in the morning until 10 at night in the hopes of getting into university. Students from urban areas whose families are often more affluent pay for years of private tutoring to weigh the odds in their favour.

    The families who can afford to do so send their son or daughter to universities abroad, even though it often means not seeing their only child for years. By setting up a European branch in northern China, it may be a way to have the best of both worlds: ‘There’s a group that would like an international education but don’t want to have to leave China’, Poppema says.

    Joint Universities

    The very best schools in China are the 39 institutes in the so-called Project 985  . China Agricultural University is among them. These schools get more funding to host conferences, attract highly sought after faculty members, develop research facilities and send their own staff abroad  .

    In connection to those networking efforts, in 2003, the Chinese Ministry of Education instituted a system for Joint Universities. It is up to the Ministry to grant a license for any shared institutional ventures, including branches. The government is selective about the universities with whom they enter into partnerships: Groningen in Yantai would be one of the ten branch campuses between an elite foreign institute and a top Chinese university.

    Under the Joint University policy, the president of the university must be a Chinese national and the provost comes from the foreign university. ‘If it’s about the money and the relations with government, that’s the responsibility of the Chinese president. If it’s about the academic programme, that’s the responsibility of the provost.’

    The place to be

    An expert’s take

    Although the Yantai campus has room for 10,000 students, that is likely more of an aspiration than a realistic enrolment goal, at least for the coming decade, according to Kevin Kinser. ‘We often hear numbers like 10,000 students for these branch campuses, but it’s very, very, very, very, very – how many ‘very’s can I put in this – rare for a branch campus to have that many students.’

    Kinser is an associate professor at the School of Education at the State University of New York at Albany. He is also a founding member of the Cross-Border Education Research Team, a group founded in 2010 that studies transnational teaching and research activities.

    Why do international branch campuses struggle to meet their full enrolment potential? In general, Kinser says, students don’t consider it the real thing: ‘The real thing is actually going abroad.’

    Still, he says there are quite a few aspects of this partnership between CAU and Groningen that sound pretty unique. ‘I don’t know of many other places where there is an existing facility that people have been trying to fill for a decade and are just now able to do so.’ It’s also exceptional to be allowed to permanently use the facilities rent-free, but Kinser suspects that could be attributed to the campus being underused for so long.

    He says it would be unusual for the Ministry of Education not to require prior approval of what is being taught there. ‘China is very concerned about what it calls its educational sovereignty. Its current policies require a certain sort of Chinese identity for any institution which is establishing a presence in its country, so I would be surprised if the curriculum will not be regulated by the national ministry.’

    ‘China has been increasingly cautious under the current premier about the types of freedoms that it is offering’, Kinser adds. ‘There is not political freedom, but there is academic freedom to the extent that all you are doing is talking about academic subjects.’

    The fact that Groningen aims to work with predominantly international instructors is probably seen as a perk in China. But it may be a challenge: ‘Getting sufficient numbers of qualified staff to either be secunded or temporary appointments can be difficult. A lot of these things rely on staff coming in temporarily for one semester or even for a few weekends to be able to conduct classes.’

    As for how any extra revenue could be spent, Kinser confirms that money generated at a branch in China is expected to be used for further development of the campus there rather than back home. ‘It’s not a subsidiary where you can just move money back and forth. It’s not a child of the foreign university.’

    The way Poppema describes it, Yantai sounds more like the place to be than Groningen. The climate of the coastal city is roughly the same, but a little less rainy. Unlike larger Chinese cities, Yantai is not as plagued by smog . It’s located in China’s traditional winemaking region. The skyline in some areas appears incongruously European – red tapered spires and white facades would seem more at home on the shores of the Rhine river than the Bohai Sea. Like the rest of the Shandong peninsula, Yantai was under German control for several decades in the early 20th century prior to World War I.

    Although the buildings are based on centuries-old architecture, most of them are only five years old: in China, it’s more common to simply tear down a building and construct something entirely new if it is considered outdated than to renovate it  . Poppema says that a more sustainable approach would be put into effect at the Yantai campus under the RUG’s influence.

    The campus seems deliberately positioned in the midst of attractive potential employers. Yantai Hi-Tech Industrial Zone , Yantai Software Park, Yantai Pilot Park for Service Outsourcing and Yantai Animation Base form a hub for many tech companies, including IBM , LG, Fuji and Hyundai . With development comes manufacturing, and a handful of Foxconn factories are about an hour away from the campus.

    Direct collaboration with businesses is also part of the CAU plans. ‘Friesland Campina already has a dairy centre in Beijing together with the China Agriculture University and Wageningen, , and we will also participate in that.’

    Good intentions

    During their visit in February, the representatives of CAU and Yantai insisted that they trusted the RUG’s good intentions. ‘But if you’ve been disappointed twice before, you’re going to be very careful the third time’, Poppema says.

    ‘Our story was: we want a university like Groningen, and these are our diplomas. We want it to be research-intensive, we want bachelors, masters and PhDs, and we will not be making a profit. Any profit that we do make in Yantai will be invested in research.’

    However, in accordance with current Dutch law, branch campus students are required to spend at least one year studying in the Netherlands. As such, those students would be paying the RUG’s international tuition fee while they are here. According to Poppema, those revenues could be spent on hiring more staff in Groningen. With around 1,500 additional students paying tuition fees, the RUG could make 15 million euros in extra revenue annually.

    ‘For them, we are solving a problem’
    No one in China wants to use the terms ‘budget’ or ‘investment’, but that’s evidently not for lack of available funding: a press release about the unrealized plans with University College Dublin referred to ‘an unprecedented investment.’  

    Now, CAU appears willing to go even further with the RUG. Their promise: ‘We will speed up, and we will do more.’ Poppema says it’s not a blank check, but it’s good. ‘We make the specifications about what we require, so they would rather not hear a figure. They say: ‘we will do what is necessary.’’

    Best use

    ‘For them, we are solving a problem. This is optimistically called the best use, but it might be the only use.’ The RUG has to provide the curriculum and at least some of the staff, and it seems CAU will do the rest.

    Poppema also sees the branch as a suitable testing ground for projects like the International Classroom and Learning Communities. ‘Anything you want to do here and would have to change, there, you can do it from day one.’

    Although the Dutch Ministry of Education requirement for branch students to come to the Netherlands may eventually change, Poppema would be very happy to see those students in Groningen. That could mean around 1,500 more internationals studying in the city starting around 2019, which gives the Housing Office some time to organise enough housing. That would also mean around 1,500 empty beds in Yantai, where students from the RUG and other universities could go on exchange.

    Miniature version of Groningen

    The city of Yantai will be paying for the first five years, during which the University will almost certainly be operating at a deficit. But Poppema was adamant in the negotiations that the RUG would not be responsible for the rent – ‘not now, not ever. I don’t want to leave my successors with having to pay the rent in ten years.’
    Poppema says that he does not believe the RUG will have to submit its curriculum for approval by the Chinese Ministry of Education. ‘In the coming weeks, we will discuss the requirements necessary for recognition by the Chinese education authorities’, he says. The curriculum will be a selection of the RUG’s English-language programmes which the Dutch NVAO would eventually have to check in person by making a trip to Yantai.

    Whether or not Yantai or even just the Laishan district will truly become a miniature version of Groningen, complete with a thriving student community and a local economy shaped by the university’s presence, is anyone’s guess. The fact that the campus is located in a province with 97 million people that, until now, has lacked a top university seems auspicious. But no matter how spectacular the opportunity appears, Poppema remains aware that it all depends on whether or not students show up. ‘You need the numbers, like always. Any shop needs customers, and any university needs students.’