Almost 3 years ago the University of Groningen announced its intention to open a branch campus in Yantai. Even though the value of this undertaking could have been better communicated to students, staff members, and the society, I had been convinced from the first moment that this could be a hugely positive step for our university, its standing, and the success of our education programs and internationalization ambitions.
This optimism stems from experience. Before joining the University of Groningen, I had been working at Xi’an-Jiaotong Liverpool University (XJTLU), the branch campus of Liverpool University in China. Working there I experienced first-hand a dynamic, truly international, academic institution.
Moreover, I witnessed the benefits that such a branch campus brings to the parent institute and my impressions were repeatedly validated through discussions with colleagues from Liverpool. Given this positive experience, the announcement that Groningen would stop the Yantai project was an enormous disappointment.
Building a new university in a country with a different culture presents unique challenges. It would have certainly been useful that there exists already collected experience from similar branch campuses in China that have to a large extent shown how this can be successfully done. Despite this experience there were more questions to be answered and practical issues to be solved concerning Yantai.
How much work do RUG staff would need to put setting up the university? How would such work be compensated? How could we have ensured that the academic culture in Yantai conforms to our academic standards while respecting the Chinese worldview of our eventual students and partners? Such questions, and many more, have been part of extensive discussions in RUG.
However, while such practical questions were being answered and the situation was becoming clearer, the discussion around Yantai turned to the question of academic freedom. This discussion intensified after it became known that there will be a party secretary at UGY. Here I would like for a moment to contribute my experience from the period I worked in China.
Let me be categorical. I have never experienced a single incident where someone representing Chinese authorities intervened in any way in my work. I have never heard a single complaint that any of my former XJTLU colleagues had experienced a similar incident.
There was indeed a party secretary at XJTLU – he never intervened either in educational content or research direction. Actually, I have never even met the party secretary since my role, as lecturer and for a short time as acting head of my department, was focused on education and research and these issues were solely handled by the Liverpool-appointed vice-president for academic affairs.
The UGY would have followed a similar model where the vice-president responsible for education and research would be appointed by Groningen. In summary, my experience had made me confident that academic freedom would not have been in danger in Yantai.
Openness and inclusiveness are two of the cornerstones of RUG’s culture. Openness is measured by how willing we are to collaborate with people coming from different cultures and having profoundly different worldviews, possibly broadening our own in the process.
There are several things about China that one can criticize. We cannot remain blind however to the fact that China’s decision to open up its education system to foreign universities demonstrates a certain openness and the willingness to engage with other cultures and learn from them. The failure of the Yantai project will certainly be a blow for Groningen in terms of, among others, prestige and internationalization ambitions.
However, it also has implications for our academic culture. I am concerned that the fear which often drove the discussion around Yantai and stemmed from the prospect of engaging with a largely unknown culture, runs contrary to the culture of openness and inclusiveness that Groningen supports. As an international staff member, working and living in an open, inclusive environment are essential. It is then an important question whether staff and students are indeed in agreement with the increased internationalization in RUG or they view it as a necessary evil.
From this point of view, the outcome of the Yantai project is related to much deeper questions on academic culture that should open, rather than close, after the recently announced end of the project.
Konstantinos Efstathiou is Assistant Professor at the Johann Bernoulli Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science