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Wednesday, October 11, 2017, 16:37
Learning together
By Zhang Zefeng
Wednesday, October 11, 2017, 16:37 By Zhang Zefeng

International students come to China to study in Sino-foreign joint-venture universities. International students do experiments in labs at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.  (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Earlier this year, when many fresh graduates in the United States started their journey in the working world or academia, Kelley Reardon stepped out of her comfort zone and opted for a different path.

I feel like my understanding of China now is much better and wider; it's more well-rounded and comprehensive than it was four years ago

Abdullah Almiqasbi, Libyan student at University of Nottingham Ningbo China

She quit her new environmental consulting job in Boston, flew across the Pacific Ocean, and enrolled in a Sino-foreign joint-venture university.

"China is a huge economic powerhouse," says Reardon, 24. "There's so much potential for China to become a leader in environmental areas like renewable energy and climate action."

Reardon is studying for an International Master's of Environmental Policy at Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province. The university is jointly set up by Duke University in the US and Wuhan University in Hubei province.

She believes the university is a perfect fit. She can immerse herself in Chinese culture and language, and still be part of a global community interacting with schoolmates from different backgrounds.

Reardon takes a wide range of classes, including economics and statistics, with high-profile professors from Duke University and Stanford University. She also works as a research assistant on projects such as wild panda conservation, the formation of national parks in China and the Belt and Road Initiative.

"Globalization is happening and we just have to harness the benefits and really get to understand people from other cultures and then apply that to your professional field," she says. "Being in China is a way to do that."

Since the establishment of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the country's first joint academic venture institution in 2004, there have been seven joint-venture universities of independent legal entities approved by the Ministry of Education.

"China is fulfilling its promise to open up the education market after joining the World Trade Organization. That makes these Sino-foreign joint-venture universities possible," says Xi Youmin, the executive president of Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

"Education is an international experiment. It also meets the need for cultural exchange and research."

Establishing a joint-venture university in China also meets many foreign universities' goals of global expansion.

"Globalization is part of the strategic plan for Kean University," says Philip Connelly, executive vice-chancellor of Wenzhou-Kean University.

Connelly says setting up a campus in China can globalize the curriculum of the US university in terms of substance and quality as well as provide "a world of opportunities" to its students and faculty.

After spending several years studying the higher-education market, joint-venture institutions are attracting an increasing number of international students who want to pursue higher education in China.

In 2012, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University had only 14 international students. But the number has gone up to about 700. At New York University Shanghai, international students make up about half of its enrollment.

International students perform onstage at New York University Shanghai. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In recent years, Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has been receiving more than 4,000 applications from international students each year. The annual tuition fee for international students is 88,000 yuan (US$13,264), and the school also offers scholarships.

"Demand is increasing a lot," says Kirsty Mattinson, director of XJTLU Global, which handles Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University's international student recruitment and support.

East meets West

Unlike traditional universities, most joint-venture universities adopt Western teaching philosophy and incorporate it with Chinese elements.

Three years ago, UK student James Bromley found out about New York University Shanghai and became interested in pursuing a liberal arts education in an Eastern culture.

"I thought it was the perfect match between a quality undergraduate education and a completely new cultural experience," says the senior political economy major.

Bromley spent the first of his two study years taking a wide range of classes including economics, science and Chinese arts. He was exposed to different professors in various fields of interest.

Later, he designed his own study track by combining political science and economics within the social science framework. "That really makes me passionate about studying," he says. "If I stayed at home in the UK for university, it'd be just a three-year process. From day one, you just go straight into academics. There's no flexibility with what you're learning."

The university also offers students Chinese courses, which incorporate both language learning and cultural learning. Students are required to reach a certain level of Chinese proficiency before graduation.

"Western education in the social sciences often focus exclusively on thinkers and theories," Bromley says. "I'm exposed to a different angle by studying it in China and you're constantly aware of the East and thinkers and different forms of economy."

NYU Shanghai is not alone. Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has also been combining the flexibility of US higher education, the British quality control system and the emphasis on fundamental studies in Chinese education.

International students of New York University Shanghai tour together. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)  

"Joint-venture institutions offer a soft landing for international students," says Chris Rudd, provost of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

"Academic standards, processes and pedagogy should be familiar to them, but they would also expect to benefit from exposure to local language, culture and business context as well as the opportunity to learn informally from Chinese classmates."

Global community

Studies have shown that most learning happens outside of the classroom, such as personal interactions among students. To that effect, students who attend joint universities can learn from peers across the globe and the resources they can tap is also at a global level.

In Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, there are currently about 700 international students from 50 countries and regions, and the number is expected to grow to 2,000 to 3,000 in the near future.

When Indonesian student Mutia Hanifah first enrolled in the Sino-foreign joint-venture university, she was amazed by the diverse student body on campus. She quickly made friends with international students from countries including the UK, South Korea, Italy and Zimbabwe.

"It's quite surprising to have friends from all over the world," says the 20-year-old applied chemistry sophomore. "I had never imagined that before."

When the students meet, they exchange ideas and get to know one another's habits, religion and culture. "Adapting to different cultures is a bit challenging, but it's fun," she says.

Similarly, faculty members are generally very diverse. About 80 percent of the university's faculty are international members. Chen Bing, associate professor of urban planning and design, says he has colleagues from nine different countries in his department.

"It's like a United Nations," Chen says, adding that such a diverse environment opens students' minds. "This will also be the world after they graduate. They need to know this is a very international world."

Studying at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has broadened Hanifah's horizon. She has changed her mind about returning home after graduation and plans to head to the West to further her studies.

Bridging the gap

Moving to a foreign country to study without understanding its language and culture can be challenging and risky. The impact can be significant for both students and the countries involved.

Libyan student Abdullah Almiqasbi enrolled at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China at age 17. Almiqasbi still remembers that, without basic Chinese language proficiency, the difficulties and frustrations he encountered in his daily life, such as navigating the city, shopping and seeing a doctor, were significant.

International students interact with teachers and classmates after lessons at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

"It's like being born in China, and all of a sudden you're 17. It's not fun," he says.

Almiqasbi is one of the few Libyan students studying in China. "China may not seem like a desirable destination for Libyans to go abroad and study," he says. "I figured I could shed some light on a lot of different issues for Libyans to understand them better."

In his four years of study, Almiqasbi managed to set aside some time to visit cities across the country. Apart from learning on campus, he also became involved in various extracurricular activities to learn more about China.

His experience has helped debunk the many presumptions and stereotypes about China that he had picked up back home.

"I feel like my understanding of China now is much better and wider. It's more well-rounded and comprehensive than it was four years ago."

Early this year, Almiqasbi was admitted to the Schwarzman Scholars program, a prestigious one-year master's degree at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He majors in global affairs and public policy with an emphasis on China.

He aspires to work for the United Nations Development Programme in social development and public policies. Meanwhile, he sees huge potential for collaboration between Libya and China in different areas.

"Coming from a developing nation, I figured that learning from the Chinese experience would boost a lot of my chances when it comes to employment," he says. "I could probably take back things and try to implement them back home."

Christiane Herr, associate professor of architecture at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, believes students who enter joint-venture universities help to establish links between China and the rest of the world.

"Many students come here and study about China. A lot of them take a little bit of China with them when they go back," she says. "I think that's the valuable part. The students become bridges; colleges make the bridges possible."

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