Higher Education

, Volume 65, Issue 4, pp 471–485

University of Nottingham Ningbo China and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University: globalization of higher education in China



DOI: 10.1007/s10734-012-9558-8

Cite this article as:
Feng, Y. High Educ (2013) 65: 471. doi:10.1007/s10734-012-9558-8


This essay studies the University of Nottingham Ningbo China and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University—the two Chinese campuses established respectively by the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool. They represent successful models of globalization of higher education in China; however their rationale, strategies, curricula, partnership, and orientation are very different. Through a comparative analysis, the paper reveals their unique development and offers a template for studies of globalization of higher education in China and elsewhere through branch campuses.


Transnational educationOverseas campusesGlobalizationHigher educationChina


China is accelerating its efforts to globalize higher education through joint ventures with other countries’ universities. Recent examples include Duke-Wuhan University campus in Kunshan and New York University Shanghai in collaboration with East China Normal University. Enrolling their first classes in 2013, both followed the precedent established by British universities which continue to pioneer academic partnerships in China. A report published by The Quality Assurance Agency (2006) discusses various academic collaborative activities between the United Kingdom and China, ranging from ministerial-level annual summits to degree programs, listing eighty-two UK higher education institutions stating that “they had or were intending to establish a link with a Chinese institution to deliver a UK higher education award” (Quality Assurance Agency 2006, p. 10). Among those British pioneers, two stand out: the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool.

The campuses of the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool in China, in collaboration of their respective partners, offer comprehensive education compared to many program-based collaborative projects between Chinese and foreign institutions (e.g. the Global EMBA Program offered by the University of Southern California on the campus of Shanghai Jiaotong University in Shanghai). These universities assume the independent legal entity and operate their own campuses away from the parent campuses. They were created as a “new university.” While the university curricula as well as the governance and management structures are mainly replicated from the foreign campus, particularly in the case of University of Nottingham in Ningbo China, the adoption and execution of these structures entail new challenges in the Chinese context as discussed in the essay. These two universities, like the new comers such as Duke University’s and New York University’s campuses in China, maintain an active research agenda on issues relevant to China, for instance, research on contemporary China and sustainable technology (Nottingham) and environmental management and global health (Duke University). As comprehensive and full-scale campuses, they require a higher degree of support from the local government, demand better coordination of governance and management between the foreign and Chinese institutions, and entail long-term investment and strategic planning. The key to success in overcoming challenges in the areas of management and governance lies in coordination between various stakeholders with a joint long-term strategic vision for the new institution, as discussed with examples in the following sections.

Confirming the success of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC), Agora, a British think tank, argues a cautious stance towards British educational presence in China, listing different reasons, one of which seems to be that the British should be wise enough not to help a major competitor strengthen its higher education. Sir Colin Campbell, the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, however, provided a catalogue of reasons for UNNC, including the recognition of China as an emerging major power, exporting teaching and research expertise to China, and providing a British education in China at a discount (Fazackerly and Worthington 2007, p. 27). Establishing an educational operation overseas is a complex challenge. Numerous studies have listed various benefits, including impacts on students, benefits for the faculty, reputation for the institution, and broader implications for state and local communities, as well as associated risks and challenges such as sustainability, funding, student recruitment, tuition sharing, and management (Becker 2009; Council of Graduate Schools 2010). A variety of success cases have been identified in the literature including the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s campus in Vietnam (Wilmoth 2004) and Monash University Sunway in Malaysia (Dyt 2007). Both Australian Universities were able to match their unique strengths with the particular demands of the host countries, focusing on the latter’s sustainable development as major rationale for an overseas campus. Those cases (Wilmoth 2004; Dyt 2007) demonstrate that the success of a transnational educational operation requires a match of the source institution’s unique strength with the characteristics of social conditions and development strategies of the host country. Given the demographic, social, and economic circumstances of the host country, the source institution may have a menu of choice in the selection of its host or cooperating partner and through working with them, design a governance and management structure suitable for the mission of the new entity. This paper addresses the issues related to governance, management, and mission strategies of transnational educational collaboration in China through case studies of the joint ventures that the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool established in China with their respective local partners.

Some theoretical perspectives and the Chinese context

There are three predominant issues in transnational education: governance, management, and mission strategy. They are determined by not only the nature and feature of the source university, but also the constraints of the host country. For the latter, host government regulations as well as the interest and capacity of the host partners are dominant drivers. Unlike some other countries that allow foreign universities to have a free hand in setting up and running an educational enterprise, China’s Ministry of Education has developed a set of rules and regulations on the presence and operation of foreign higher educational institutions in China. No foreign university can set up a program, let alone, a campus, without partnering with a Chinese institution and the head of the offspring institution must be a Chinese citizen.

The core strategy of the source university may not be consistent with that of the Chinese partner university. The two institutions may have different goals and expectations in the joint venture. The proportion of representation by the source and cooperating institutions on the governing board varies in China. The difference in the proportion may have material impact not only on what the source and cooperating institutions see as the best for them, but also on what they may decide as the optimal outcome for the offspring institution.

Therefore, mission strategy and partnership for the joint venture are intertwined and influence each other, with important consequences for the governance and management of the new entity. In a pioneering study of transnational education, Miller-Idriss and Hanauer (2011) discuss two competing theories of mission strategies in transnational higher education—the convergence/globalization model and the borrowing/localization model. While the former refers to conformity toward an international norm of education, the latter applies to the cases in which a foreign model is adapted and localized to suit the needs of the host country. A joint venture can adopt either model as its core strategy. Miller-Idriss and Hanauer (2011) collect data on transnational education institutions in the Middle East and conduct a systematic study of the genre of these institutions by classifying them into six categories: replica campus, branch campus, turkey foreign style independent institutions, offshore programs, foreign style institutions, and virtual branch campus. Though different prototypes share the common denominator of foreign delivery of higher education in terms of the curriculum and faculty, they differ in foreign governance and ownership. The degree of control by the source university is the strongest under the replica campus and the weakest under the foreign style model.

Finally, Verbik and Merkley (2006) differentiate the establishment of transnational education into three types on the basis of funding sources: those self-funded by the source university, those funded by the host government or domestic private sources, and those with facilities provided for by the host government or other domestic sources. There may be a combination of provisions of host capital and host facilities. Foreign governance is the strongest under the self-funded model, followed by the other two scenarios or a combination of funding and facilities by the host. However, there is a trade-off between risk and responsibility. In order to reduce financial risks and uncertainties, a source university may have to give up its governance or management control in exchange for funding and facilities.

As to be discussed below, the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) have unique governance structures. Unlike the prototypes described by Miller-Idriss and Hanauer (2011), they are governed by their respective boards, with balanced representation by the British and the Chinese. Though the mission strategies of the source universities (the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool, two public universities in Britain) are similar, their offspring campuses in China are different from each other. While the University of Nottingham Ningbo China leans toward the convergence/globalization model and adopts a British liberal arts education model, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University finds itself closer to the borrowing/localization model by creating its own identity through the joint strengths of the two parent universities.

The core strategies of the two offspring institutions were determined by the selection of a partner. The academically weak partner for the University of Nottingham guarantees the latter’s control of the curriculum, whereas the equal academic strengths between the University of Liverpool and its Chinese partner, Xi’an Jiaotong University, results in somewhat shared control of the curriculum. While the infrastructure and facilities of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China were built by its partner’s parent company, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was constructed with the help of a municipal government. The different sources of investment, in combination with the different objectives of investments, prescribe control over the revenue.

Ningbo and Suzhou experiences

Ningbo lies seventy-eight miles to the south of Shanghai, across the Bay of Hangzhou. It is an ancient city of over four thousand years of history. With a population of only 5.49 million today, many well-known Chinese originated there, from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to the world’s most famous cellist Yoyo Ma, along with about ninety members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Ningbo also leads the country in producing philanthropists for education: Bao Yugang, Shau Yifu, Wang Kuanchen, and Dong Haoyun, to mention a few.1 Ningbo has also earned a national reputation for its entrepreneurship and business acumen. Toward the close of the First Opium War, Ningbo was among the first Chinese cities seized by the British military force.2 The fall of Ningbo symbolically ushered in the one-hundred-year decline of China.

One hundred and eighty-five kilometers away from Ningbo, Suzhou was considered the Venice of the Orient, though this acclaim is over-rated. With the exception of a few gardens where gurgling brooks crisscrossed the bamboo land, the city is not distinguishable from other Chinese urban areas characterized by high-rise buildings, crowded main streets, and an ever increasing number of automobiles. If Ningbo has built its wealth through entrepreneurship, then Suzhou still sustains the notion of a laidback style and a myth of natural beauty; after all, it used to be a place for emperors to enjoy the moon and the lakes and for poets to fantasize upon a sight of a temple and sounds of raindrops on the lotus leaves.

One hundred and sixty years following the end of the Opium War, the British presence found itself again in Ningbo and 2 years later, in Suzhou, this time establishing universities. This move by the British represents a strategic decision that has multiple implications, financial, cultural, and academic, among others. Today, the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool are brand names in China. The growing enrollment of the Chinese students in these two universities in Britain reflects the success of their strategic goals for setting up their overseas campuses.

Ningbo and Suzhou are at the frontline of the globalization of higher education in China. Though the two universities in Britain founded their offspring campuses in the two cities with certain similar long-term strategies, their main core strategies, models, and practices differ from each other. For instance, their Chinese partners represent two extremes in the Chinese educational echelon, with very different institutional missions, strengths, and purposes. The educational programs on these two campuses in China also demonstrate unique characteristics, despite the common emphasis on the western tradition of liberal arts education. They are also different in the choice of location and the physical appearance of the facilities and landscape, which is consistent with their own, unique, academic visions. Faculty recruitment and management take shape in accordance with the core strategies they have adopted for their long-term vitality and viability. The financial models and structures are divergent, with outcomes representing two different trajectories into the future. This essay discusses the differences as well as similarities between the two institutions and their implications to globalization of higher education in China or elsewhere in the world.

The University of Nottingham Ningbo3

The most ambitious earlier endeavor of international academic collaboration in China can be found in the creation of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. With over 23,000 students, the University of Nottingham is the fifth largest and one of the most selective universities in Britain. Established in 1798 as an adult education school, the University has evolved into a research-led institution, producing applicable knowledge that has changed the world, including the work by the two Nobel laureates on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), silicon polymers, vitro culture of plants, and micropropation techniques. Its research has earned the University a seat among the top four universities for private funding in the UK. Currently, it was ranked 74th in the latest 2011–12 Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, up from its 86th position 3 years ago.4 It was ranked 84th top university by the 2011 Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).5

At the very beginning of the new millennium, the University of Nottingham chose its own way of ushering in a new era and strategically appointed a Chinese citizen Yang Fujia as its sixth Chancellor. Yang, the former President of Fudan University (1993–1998), enunciated what he saw a first-rate university should possess: unique academic strengths, excellent faculty and students, free expressions and independent thinking, and sufficient non-government financial support (Yang 2008, pp. 17–19).

After Yang assumed the Chancellorship in 2000, he brought up the idea of establishing a Nottingham campus in China.6 At the time, Nottingham was engaged in consolidating its campus in Malaysia, which was established in 2000 as the first overseas campus by any UK university. Chancellor Yang’s idea of a Chinese campus prevailed. Initially, Yang made inquiries and attempted to secure municipal support from Shanghai. Ningbo, Yang’s hometown, was eventually selected as the location for the future campus because of the strong support from the local government.

In contrast with the University of Nottingham, its partner in China was not a top tier institution. Established in 1993 as a collective ownership specializing in education, Zhejiang Wanli Education Group founded Wanli International Kindergarten, Ningbo International Primary School, and Ningbo Wanli Middle School. In 1998, it received the mandate to take over and manage the Zhejiang Normal Vocational School of Agricultural Technology which, founded in 1950, faced declining enrollments, resource shortage, and faculty exodus (Xiamen University 2008). Under Zhejiang Wanli Education Group, the erstwhile vocational school reemerged as the Zhejiang Wanli College, transforming a small trade school of 2,000 students, 375 faculty and staff, and 5 departments into a comprehensive university comprised of over 20,000 students, 1,100 faculty and staff, and 9 colleges offering 30 majors.

The pioneer of the Wanli model was Xu Yafen, Chairwoman of Wanli Education Group. The concept of the Wanli model differentiates it from both public and private universities. Unlike the former, Wanli emphasizes the market demand for its curricular development, accepts assessment of its success on the basis of parents’ and students’ satisfaction, and adopts a compensation system awarding those who make contributions to the University.7 The Board of Zhejiang Wanli College assumes “responsibility of non-academic affairs, such as infrastructure construction and external coordination,” empowering the President to focus singularly on academic administration (Xu 2007, 5).8 This governing approach of Wanli Education Group later became the modus operandi of its cooperation with the University of Nottingham, under which the British institution took care of academic affairs while Wanli Education Group took responsibility for the construction of the campus, management of the facilities, and provision of services.9

The governance and management structures of Nottingham are interesting. The Board of UNNC has 15 members: 7 from Britain and 7 from China, plus the President of UNNC. In accordance with the Chinese regulation, the President of any joint international campus in collaboration with China must be a Chinese citizen. President Yang Fujia is simultaneously a Chinese citizen and Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, making him the best person to meet the Chinese regulation and to ensure the British interest. The Chairwoman of the Board of UNNC is Madame Xu Yafen, Chair of the Boards of Zhejiang Wanli Education Group and of Zhejiang Wanli College. The UNNC Board appoints the senior staff of the university.

Another interesting personnel arrangement at UNNC is the position of the Secretary of the Communist Party of China. In Chinese universities, as in almost all other social units in the country, the Party Secretary is a powerful and ubiquitous presence. Usually, the positions for the administrative CEO and the Party Secretary are assumed by two individuals; seldom, as is the case at Zhejiang Wanli College, are the two positions filled by a single individual. The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, as a joint venture, had the option of not establishing the position of the Party Secretary. However, at the persuasion of Yang Fujia, President of UNNC and Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, UNNC installed a Party Secretary. President Yang saw several advantages in having a Party Secretary on the campus. First, the Party Secretary will ensure that UNNC is in compliance with China’s laws and policies. Second, the Party Secretary will interface and coordinate with local governments where his or her counterparts are decision-makers. Third, the Party Secretary will help resolve conflict on the campus.10

The other major personnel decision that President/Chancellor Yang made was to appoint the Provost as Chief Executive Officer. It is not coincidental that the Provost of UNNC was from Nottingham’s home campus. “We want the University of Nottingham Ningbo China to be like the University of Nottingham in Britain,” said President Yang, “and it is important not only to have a Provost from Nottingham, but also to make the Provost CEO of the Ningbo campus.”11

The tempo at which UNNC has grown is mind-boggling. In 2003, the idea of a Chinese campus was crystallized. In 2004, land was secured and Zhejiang Wanli Education Group broke ground of the new campus; simultaneously, UNNC conducted its first class on the campus of Zhejiang Wanli College. In 2005, phase-one construction of the UNNC campus was completed, including the administrative building, instructional buildings, dormitories, faculty house, and gymnasium. In 2006, UNNC accepted on a trial basis postgraduate students at the master’s level. Next year, the master’s programs were officially approved. In 2008, Ph.D. students were admitted on a trial basis. In the following year, its Ph.D. programs were officially approved. The University of Nottingham Ningbo China has been so far a unique experience in China. Its curriculum is anchored in and reflects Western liberal arts tradition; classes are conducted in English and faculty serve as individual tutors in addition to lecturing.

Its bucolic campus, fronting the Nottingham Lake and traversed by the Nottingham River, has all the environs of a small elite private college in the West. The administrative building, with its august-looking steeple clock tower, is a replica of the Trent Building on the home campus in Britain. Groves of hollies along the banks of the meandering Nottingham River and gigantic vases of carnations on the sides of the crosswalks enhanced an idyllic ambiance. Except for the towering nine-story student dormitories, extant and under construction, indicative of the size of the student population on the campus at present and in the future, it might be mistaken for a small liberal arts college in British or U.S. suburbia.

In 2009, UNNC had about 3,600 students including 3,291 undergraduate students, 102 pre-master’s students, and 184 Master’s students. It also had 191 international students, 19 students from Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan, and 60 exchange students from overseas partner universities as well as Nottingham’s UK and Malaysian campuses. The academic staff comprised 123 full-time faculty members and 8 part-time teaching personnel. The University also planned to add about 30 faculty members in the coming year. Chancellor Yang hoped that UNNC would be able to maintain an intimate learning environment, rather than evolving into another large university in China, though he admitted that eventually UNNC might have over 8,000 students just in a few years.

Among UNNC’s faculty, roughly 10 % of them came from the University of Nottingham in Britain; about 80 % were recruited worldwide. The rest were hired among haigui (Chinese who returned to China after receiving education in the West). The standard contract was a five-year renewable appointment.

The UNNC’s academic programs are housed in seven schools: International Business, International Communications Studies, International Studies, Engineering, Computer Science, Sustainable Technology, and English Language and Literature. All the curricula are from the home campus of Nottingham.12 Students enjoy the small-class environment, which helps them develop bond among them. They also have easy access to the faculty and the Administration. Each student is assigned a tutor who is a faculty member.13 While the curriculum was anchored in Western liberal education, certain courses were offered with Chinese market demands in mind such as those in communications studies, business, and computer sciences. Students are trained to think broadly and critically; they have more freedom to select electives or to transfer to another program than their counterparts in a Chinese university. Because of their English skills, extensive training in critical thinking, and well-chosen specialization, job placement rates of UNNC students stood very high.

The Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University14

The Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University welcomed its first class in September 2006, 2 years behind UNNC. It was the joint product of Xi’an Jiaotong University and the University of Liverpool. It aimed at educating technical and managerial professionals with international perspectives and competitive capabilities, matching global economic and social development with its expertise in business and technology, conducting research in areas where humanity faces profound challenges, and exploring new models for higher education that will exert a strong influence on the development of education in China and the world.

Rather than using a pure liberal arts college model, XJLU adopted science, technology and management as its academic corner stone, with an emphasis on applications. It would not become simply a clone of the University of Liverpool; neither would it be just another typical Chinese university. It was created to have a new identity drawing upon the strengths of both parent campuses while duplicating neither.

Like the University of Nottingham, the University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group, which is composed of large research-intensive universities that account for two-thirds of government research awards and contracts. It is also a member of the N8 group for research collaboration, which comprises eight research-intensive universities in Northern England. With over 20,000 students, it is one of the largest public universities in Britain. In 2011-12, it was ranked 123rd worldwide in the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings15 and tied in the 101-150 group in the 2011 Shanghai Jiaotong University’s ARWU ranking.16

One of the oldest and the most prestigious universities in China, Xi’an Jiaotong University is a member of the C9 League, composed of China’s nine top universities (China’s Ivy League). With an enrollment of around 32,000 students and about 200 Master’s and 100 Ph.D. programs in Science, Engineering, Medicine, Economics, Management, Arts, Language and Law, it remains one of the top universities in China with strengths in science, technology, and management.17 While the University as a whole was ranked 382nd in QS, its engineering program was ranked 114th, ahead of the engineering program of the University of Nottingham (184th) in the same ranking system. It is not coincident that in the naming of the offspring university, Xi’an Jiaotong precedes Liverpool.

The relationship between the University of Liverpool and Xi’an Jiaotong was described as qiang qiang he zuo (the cooperation of two strong partners), compared to the unequal academic marriage between the University of Nottingham and its partner, Zhejiang Wanli College. The leading fields at the University of Liverpool include veterinary sciences, urban planning, architecture, medicine, engineering, physics, geology, and chemistry. The top disciplines at Xi’an Jiaotong are dynamics and thermal engineering physics, management science and engineering, business, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.18 Because of the combination of the strengths of the two parent universities, Xi’an Jiao-Liverpool University focuses on sciences, engineering, and management.

Its core strategy is to develop a unique strength out of the superior endowments of the parent universities. XJTLU’s academic programs include biological sciences, computer science and software engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, languages and culture, mathematical sciences, civil engineering, civic design, and business, economics and management. Research priorities were given to new and renewable energy, biotechnology, biological engineering, environmental protection and sustainable development, environmental chemistry, internet and communications, artificial intelligence, financial engineering, financial mathematics, and urban planning.

The goal of the University is the cultivation of technical and management leaders with international visions, who provide services to social and economic development. The prospect of the University is to become an international university in China, with unique Chinese characteristics. “We are unique,” said President Xi, “there are several thousand universities in China. We are not interested in adding another similar Chinese university, but we will neither clone another British university. We are aiming at creating a university that will have impact on higher education in China and the world… Our goal is to combine the best practice of Chinese universities with the best practice of Western universities to create our own unique pedagogical and management model.”19

Symbolically, in contrast with UNNC’s belfry representing its motherland, the centerpiece for Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University is a group of statues including those of Confucius, Mo Zi, Lao Zi, Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. Not far away from the main building were two children ensconced in gigantic chairs facing each other, with their architectural theme as Dialogue between the East and the West.

Typically, a graduate of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University received two separate degrees and a graduation diploma. One academic degree was from China, and the other from the University of Liverpool. By contrast, University of Nottingham Ningbo China granted degrees from the University of Nottingham only. Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool was among the few joint ventures between a foreign university and a Chinese university that granted a separate Chinese degree approved by the Ministry of Education of China.20

In terms of governance, the Chinese had a majority on the Board of XJTLU, compared to the delicate balance on the Board of University of Nottingham, Ningbo. The Governing Board of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was composed of nine members, five of whom are from Xi’an Jiaotong University while the remaining four represent the University of Liverpool. Executive President Xi was one of the four representatives of the University of Liverpool on the Board. The Chair of the Board was Party Secretary, Professor Wang Jianhua, a member of the National Political Consultative Congress of China. By contrast, the Chair of the Board of University of Nottingham Ningbo China was Chair of the Board of Zhejiang Wanli Education Group, the parent of Zhejiang Wanli College, the academic partner of the University of Nottingham. The Vice Chair of the Board of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was Sir Professor Howard Neweby, Vice Chancellor and CEO of the University of Liverpool. Clearly, the Board of the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was dominated by the Chinese team in terms of the number, if not the position.

The Executive President and Vice President for Academic Affairs were appointed by the University of Liverpool. The current Executive President Xi used to be Vice President of Xi’an Jiaotong University, who had participated in building the new campus. He was selected by the University of Liverpool to become Executive President of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, because of which, he also became Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and consequently stepped down from his position as Vice President of Xi’an Jiaotong University.

The time from conception to birth of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was exactly 3 years. In September 2003, Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, Sir Drummond Bone and Pro-Vice Chancellor Michael Fang were instrumental in setting up the joint enterprise with Xi’an Jiaotong University, working with their counterparts, Chancellor Wang Jianhua and Vice Chancellor Xi Youmin. A common understanding was reached between the two institutions in September 2003 for a joint campus. At the meeting, Chancellor Wang suggested that the Suzhou Industry Park be the campus location.

Compared with the self-contained campus of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, which was constructed and managed by Zhejiang Wanli Education Group, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University was situated in an industrial park of universities, research institutes, and high-tech companies, constructed with government support and emulating Silicon Valley and Bangalore. Unlike the location of UNNC which was in the same city as its cooperating institution, Zhejiang Wanli College, the campus of XJTLU is 1,425 km away from its cooperating institution, Xi’an Jiaotong University. The selection of an industrial park as its campus reflected XJTLU’s emphasis on science and technology and its focus on applied research.21

Like the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has been on the fast track from a concept to reality. In March 2005, the institutional proposal of a joint venture between the University of Liverpool and Xi’an Jiaotong University was evaluated by the Ministry of Education. The new campus was to benefit from the strengths of both the University of Liverpool and Xi’an Jiaotong University and would start with electronics, computer science, commerce, and eventually increase its coverage in applied sciences, biology and management (Fang 2010). In August 2005, the Ministry of Education approved the plan to start Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. In March 2006, the new campus successfully passed the follow-up evaluation by the Ministry of Education. In May 2006, Dr. Tao Wenzhao was appointed the Founding President and Dr. Michael Fang, first Executive Vice President. In July 2006, the first class of 164 students was admitted.

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University now has about 4,000 students registered in 19 different programmes in the fields of science, engineering and management and more than 60 international students. Around 750 XJTLU students are currently studying at the University of Liverpool. Similar to University of Nottingham-Ningbo, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University may grow its enrollment to around 8,000 students. Both universities benefit from the curriculum and quality control of the British educational system and adopt English as the medium of instruction. The classes are small and the faculty are assigned as advisors to a small group of students.22

Despite these similarities, the two institutions have very different missions and strategies of development. One has as the fundamental goal the provision of uncompromised, pure English education in China. The other endeavors to establish a unique academic enterprise, which is neither British nor Chinese. One is devoted to undergraduate education with some selected graduate programs; the other aspires to become a leading research university in science, engineering and management. While the University of Nottingham Ningbo China takes liberal arts education as given, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University adopts a more or less empirical approach. “What is needed by the world in the future? Can the traditional Chinese or Western universities answer the needs? If not, what will be the solutions” (Xi 2010)? Instead of directly copying the University of Liverpool or Xi’an Jiaotong University, XJTLU was supposed to draw upon the strengths of both institutions and to create its new entity.

While the Xi’an Jiaotong University and the University of Liverpool are almost equal partners in terms of academic orientation and reputation, the marriage between the University of Nottingham and Zhejiang Wanli College is not on the equal footing. As mentioned earlier, Zhejiang Wanli College was not a leading institution in China, and the involvement by Zhejiang Wanli Education Group was mainly in financial investment and management of the services on the campus. The lack of academic status of Zhejiang Wanli College allowed Nottingham to clone the University of Nottingham in China.

The University of Nottingham not only transplanted its academic programs from Britain to China, but also duplicated in China its buildings on the mother campus in Britain. The rivers, lakes and streets were named after their origin in Nottingham. In contrast with UNNC’s self-contained campus, XJTLU was situated in an open environment sharing resources with other universities’ branch campuses such as Qinghua University, Peking University, Fudan University, China University of Science and Technology, Zhejiang University, Nanjing University, and Renmin University. The students and faculty in the Industrial Park share access to the library, dining halls, and shopping malls. It is like a consortium, only without a formal name.

Their financial model also varies. While the data are not public, the understanding is that the revenues at UNNC were apportioned between Zhejiang Wanli Education Group and the University of Nottingham. The former built the campus infrastructure, managed the facilities, and collected dorm rent and revenues from auxiliary services. By contrast, both Xi’an Jiaotong University and University of Liverpool agreed that any surpluses generated by the operation of XJTLU stay at XJTLU, rather than being relocated to Xi’an Jiaotong University or the University of Liverpool. This provided incentives for the offspring campus to manage its own finances and left resources to strengthen XJTLU’s academic programs. In addition, in my interview with President Xi, I learned that the Administration of the Suzhou Industrial Park had not charged XJTLU rent for the past 4 years, which speaks volumes about government support.23

At the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the key faculty members were reassigned from Nottingham to Ningbo, with stipend, housing subsidies, and three-year tax exemption. They would return to Nottingham after a number of years at Ningbo. This personnel model is consistent with the preservation of the British tradition at UNNC, with the British hallmark continuously fortified by British faculty renewal. At Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, faculty was recruited specially to the campus at Suzhou and there was no reassignment of the faculty from the parent campuses. Once they were hired, they discontinued their employment relationships with their previous institutions. This personnel practice contributes to the cultivation of loyalty to XJTLU and the development of the unique institutional characteristics at XJTLU. Out of its 100-150 faculty members, 70 % are international and 50 % are Chinese.

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University aspires to find new ways of learning and teaching. While the road taken by University of Nottingham-Ningbo was mandated and prescribed, the future path of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University is fraught of uncertainty. One day, XJTLU may come of age and declare independence of the parent institutions, but UNNC will always try to remain true to its intellectual origin, despite all the constraints it may face.

Concluding remarks

McBurnie and Ziguras (2007) predict that the market for transnational education will become increasingly congested and competitive. While the number of students in the market may not grow much, the presence of prestigious research universities will intensify, and the participation by low-quality foreign institutions will taper; at the same time, the regulation on quality assurance by the host government will become more and more stringent. In a separate study, McBurnie and Ziguras (2009) find that intra-region student mobility will increase and inter-region student mobility will decrease, particularly in Pacific Asia. This finding implies that with the economic rise and social improvement in Asia, more and more Asian students will stay in the region to pursue higher education, instead of going to other continents. They will be attracted to the Asian countries where economic opportunities abound and the quality of education shines.

What has happened in China’s transnational education market is consistent with such predictions. In tandem with the continued rise of China’s economic status, Chinese universities will increasingly attract international students from the region.24 Over the years, there has been a large influx of students into China from neighboring countries such as South Korea, Japan, Pakistan, Thailand, Nepal, and Vietnam. The strategic presence and active participation by Western universities in China will only become more and more crucial and relevant if they desire to preserve their reputation and position as leading higher education providers in the world.

The lessons all educational institutions, both in and outside China, can learn from UNNC and XJTLU are profound. The set-up of a campus in a foreign land is a gargantuan challenge. The requirement of a foreign university to partner with a Chinese university in the creation of a new campus compounds such challenge. Though the offspring campus in china, as discussed, largely adopts the governance structure and management model of the foreign university, the execution of the structure and the implementation of the model in the joint venture engender new approaches and novel solutions. The key to resolving difficult situations lies in coordination, understanding, and cooperation among various stake-holders, emphasizing and prioritizing long-term strategic vision and relationship. For example, when certain UNNC students challenged their foreign professor on issues related to Tibet and Taiwan, the University Administration would meet with the students and the faculty pointing out the sensitivity of the issues and seeking contexts acceptable to the disputing parties. “We are in China for the long term,” said Provost Woods, “and we are not here to seek confrontation.”25 At XJTLU, through coordination and cooperation between the two parent campuses, a decision was made to allow the offspring campus to keep revenues generated from tuition in order to promote the long-term development of the new institution.

By comparison, Duke University and New York University both have adopted more or less “nominal” partners. They will try to have a major say in governance and management on the new campuses. However, given the facts that the local governments have committed investment of astronomical amounts to the joint venture, that the Chinese students are from very different backgrounds compared to their overseas counterparts, and that the Ministry of Education in China is a powerful player and a fundamental decision-maker in China’s higher education, Duke University, New York University or any other foreign institutions wishing to have a successful campus in China will have no choice but adopt a long-term strategic vision, learn ways of cooperation, and promote mutual benefits, regardless of how much importance they attach to governance or management control. UNNC and XJTLU have set a working example.

There are many plausible purposes and objectives in setting up a transnational education presence in China. A Chinese campus may help a foreign university generate additional tuition revenues and assets overseas, recruit Chinese students to its home campus,26 enhance social science and humanities research related to the culture, society, economy, politics, literature, and philosophy of China, and advance knowledge in science, technology and engineering through international collaboration in research. It may give foreign students a base to observe and study China or to immerse them in a language and cultural environment. It can also promote mutual understanding between countries, cultures, societies, and peoples.

What critically defines the destiny and destination of a nation are purposive human capital accumulation and applications of innovative ideas. Education remains as the most regulated area in China, where the ultimate authority to issue diplomas and degrees does not reside in colleges and universities, but belongs to the State. Nonetheless, transformational changes in higher education in China are beginning; the role played by transnational education institutions in China will be far reaching.


Chen (2007) surveys financial contributions to Chinese education by wealthy individuals from Ningbo. Philanthropic causes in Chinese education remain limited because of a combination of factors including the level of economic development, the tax laws and codes, the absence of private colleges, etc. The experience of Ningbo, however, does offer an exception to the general lack of private sponsorships in education.


It fell on October 10, 1841, a date that later happened to be the National Day of the Republic of China.


The data in this section were from 2009, unless noted otherwise.


Shanghai Jiaotong University: Academic Ranking of World Universities (2011). Retrieved from http://www.arwu.org.


The notion by the Agora Discussion Paper that “To pursue their Ningbo venture, Nottingham appointed Yang Fujia…as chancellor” (p. 27) was incorrect. According to the author’s interview with Yang Fujia in June 2009, the idea of a Chinese campus was initiated by Yang after he was appointed Chancellor.


Unlike private institutions, Zhejiang Wanli Educational Group registers its fixed assets, amounting to 800 million yuan, as the public property and through the government’s audit ensures that “all funds are spent on educational operations and that all expenditures are reasonable and efficient” (Xu 2007, 5).


For a detailed analysis of the Wanli Model, see Xiamen University Research Group (2008) and Xu (2007).


It was said that Zhejiang Wanli Educational Group spent about 600 million yuan or 8.8 million US dollars in the first-phase of construction; the second phase would require an even greater sum. Wanli Educational Group also manages non-academic student services such as dining halls and dormitories. The municipal government as a third partner provided 960 mu, or about 158 acres of land for the use by the University. Without this support of land by the government, it would have been impossible to start a campus. Interestingly, the generous land offer by the city was met ambivalently by Nottingham. The Chinese policy on land use by a university is based on the number of students per mu. Nottingham was not ready to contemplate a large campus and, alternately, less land would be more consistent with the size of students it planned to have on the new campus. Ultimately, the support for land value won the argument, but not without compromise: the campus was to have lakes and rivers, thereby reducing the total amount of usable land. As a result, the campus was graced with the Nottingham Lake and the Nottingham River which is spanned by seven bridges.


Interview with Chancellor Yang Fujia in June 2009.




At UNNC, all students are required to take a class that is not on the transcript of UNNC and must pass it in order to graduate: Survey of Chinese Tradition and Culture. This class runs 2 h a week for the first year and covers ancient Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, along with Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Karl Marx.


A student I met on the basketball court told me that he was particularly attracted to the park-like campus and easy access to the faculty. His sister also graduated from UNNC. He and his fellow students took great pride in being part of UNNC. “Students here are bonded and are actively involved in learning. We are of a common identity.” He also felt happy that students had good access to the Administration. “I can schedule a meeting with the Provost or the Head of the Department easily.” An international business major, he plans to pursue graduate studies in economics in the UK or US.


Based on the field trip to Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in June 2010.


Shanghai Jiaotong University: Academic Ranking of World Universities (2011). Retrieved from http://www.arwu.org.


Xi’an Jiaotong University was ranked first place nationwide in dynamics and thermal engineering physics, management science and engineering, and business; second place in electrical engineering, and third place in mechanical engineering. Baidu Baike (Encyclopedia) (2012). Retrieved from http://baike.baidu.com/view/892706.htm.


Baidu Baike (Encyclopedia) (2012). Retrieved from http://baike.baidu.com/view/892706.htm.


Strictly speaking, all degrees issued at Chinese universities and colleges are national degrees, namely, all belonging to the People’s Republic of China, under the regulations of the Ministry of Education. A university or college also provides a diploma indicating graduation from a specific university or college. Therefore, a graduate receives two documents: a degree approved by the Ministry of Education through an institution and the institution’s own diploma.


The Park started in 2004 as a joint venture with Singapore for the purpose of adapting the technology, management and administration of Singapore in China. Since 2004, the Park, with 4 % of the land and 5 % of the population of Suzhou, created annually 16 % of total output of the city, growing at an annual rate of 30 %. In 2009, there were 640 enterprises producing an output of 5.1 billion RMB. It had 14 universities or branch campuses in 2009, educating and training 28,223 graduate or undergraduate students. As a research and development incubator, it had 107 entities with R&D expenses over 125 million RMB. The applications for intellectual property rights increased from 30 in 2004 to 1,000 in 2009. Annualized investment rose from 0.6 billion to 4.78 billion RMB during the same period of time. The building area completed jumped from 100,000 square meters in 2004 to 1 million square meters in 2009. In 2009, the Park had a population of 68,000, including 56,000 temporary residents and 12,000 permanent residents. To attract investors and researchers from overseas, many of whom are Chinese, the Park built a spacious church facility on the lake.


At Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool, a mentor from a non-academic setting is also assigned to students preparing their job search and applied knowledge.


The occupants of the Suzhou Industrial Park rent the facilities from the Park and after a number of years (e.g. 15 through 20) may have the first right of refusal to purchase the facilities at the original cost of building.


China is emerging as the largest economy, replacing the United States within the next two to three decades according to the forecasting consensus. It is leading the world out of the current financial crisis that started in the United States in October 2008. In the summer of 2010, it surpassed Japan to become the second largest economy in the world.


Interview with Provost Roger Woods in June 2009.


The largest international student groups at the University of Nottingham are Chinese and Malaysian students; among its 23,310 students in 2010, 914 were from China and 504 from Malaysia, the only two countries where the University of Nottingham set up campuses.



The author thanks two anonymous reviewers for their excellent comments and discussions that have led to the improvements of the manuscript. He also wishes to thank Bruce Jiang for discussions on globalization of higher education in China and Piotr M. Zagorowski for editorial assistance and substantive comments. Ms. Betty Hagelbarger read an earlier version of the manuscript, and he is indebted to her for her unfailing support.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012