‘Don’t underestimate developing the Yantai campus’
‘It’s exciting and it’s worth it, but it also takes a lot of time. You’re perpetually hitting the wall and you’re going to return home frustrated at times. It’s a long process with ups and downs, but it’s the only way for universities to survive. This is what we have to do. There are no other options.’ That was the opening statement of director Kristiaan Versluys of the University of Ghent during a presentation on Wednesday.
Together with vice rector Kelvin Everest of the University of Liverpool, Versluys was invited by the RUG to share insights about his experiences with developing a campus in Asia. The University Council, faculty councils and the Board of Directors wanted to know what the university can expect when starting a branch campus in Yantai.
In September 2004, the University of Ghent opened a campus in the Korean city of Songdo, near Incheon. Liverpool has ten years of experience with the Xi’an Jiaotong – Liverpool University in the Chinese city of Suzhou. They didn’t mince words: ‘It’s a constant challenge. It’s often a chain of difficulties.’
One challenge is how dissimilar the partner nations can be. ‘You operate in a different culture with people that you don’t know. You need to trust your employees completely’, said Versluys. And the partners you are negotiating with are constantly changing. ‘The mayor that we were in discussions with has left and the provincial council has also been replaced in the meantime. And the nice guy from the Korean Free Economic Zone disappeared under mysterious circumstances after it became apparent that he had committed fraud. Furthermore, information is not passed on to their successors. That can be very exhausting at times. You’re constantly starting over.’
In China, they have a very different view of what a contract really means, says Everest. ‘They sign them, though. However, if they don’t want to stick to it, they just don’t.’ Chinese law can be tough to work with as well. ‘It’s not like here. The law is more of a suggestion. Frequently, things happen that are against the law, but as long as no one thinks that’s a problem, it’s just accepted.’
And beware the promised cloud cuckoo land, Versluys warns. ‘We started with 50 students in the first year. Now, that number has risen to 100. The growth is slow. That differs greatly from what we thought and what the Korean government promised us. They said that we would get a huge pool of 100,000 students lining up to study at our university. However, it turned out to be very difficult to convince parents to pay significantly higher tuition fees for a university that didn’t exist yet.’
It’s also tough to attract the right students. ‘It’s difficult to assess the value of their diplomas’, according to Versluys. Everest says that Chinese students excel in mathematics but that their English is often quite bad. ‘The level of English is not high enough to finish a degree. In the preparation year, you need to increase their English skills dramatically.’ The cultural differences also play a part in that. ‘In the beginning, they won’t talk to each, nor to their instructors, and they won’t ask questions. That’s how they are genetically programmed. You should use the preparation year to increase those skills as well.’
Chinese students work hard. Drops outs are rare, the vice rector of the University of Liverpool says. ‘They fear loss of face and loss of money. But that creates another problem: cheating. We have 20 cases per month. Students are so scared of failing.’
The university does not earn much financially from a branch campus, according to Versluys, but it is good for the reputation of the institute. ‘The eyes of the world are upon them. Failure isn’t an option, even for the directors and managers that develop the programme. If hadn’t managed to succeed, heads would have rolled.’
That’s why it’s important to have employees on your side, both directors argue. ‘And be careful: don’t act too fast’, Everest warned. The RUG wants to develop the campus in Yantai within two years. It took Liverpool three years to develop theirs, and Ghent spent five years setting up. Versluys: ‘We took things slow. We took the time. The timespan in which your university president wants to push things through is remarkably short.’
It will not be easy to create a research university out of nothing, according to Everest. ‘As a private university – which Yantai will be – you won’t get a penny for research from the government. You can only get funds through the partner university, but they won’t be eager to do so. You can request financial aid from the corporate world, and the province is also likely to chip in financially because they want the project to succeed.’
You have to have an clear vision for what you want to achieve in Asia, but you cannot get hung up on certain expectations. Everest: ‘You need to be flexible and creative, and it has to make sense both for Groningen and for Yantai. Otherwise, things won’t work out.’
Liverpool’s vice rector also had some encouraging words for the RUG delegation. His campus has grown tremendously over the years to 7,500 students and 950 employees. Because of the growth, a lot of young researchers have jobs.
And corruption or undesirable external influencing has yet to occur. ‘The Communist Party doesn’t get involved in anything, and I haven’t encountered any corruption. But it helps to have some alumni in strategic places. You can’t get anything done in China on any level unless if you have someone in your corner.’