• RUG president Sibrand Poppema signs a Memorandum of Understanding in the presence of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and president Xi Jinping of China. Photo by ANP / Koen van Weel
    RUG president Sibrand Poppema signs a Memorandum of Understanding in the presence of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and president Xi Jinping of China. Photo by ANP / Koen van Weel
    Yantai criticism won’t stop Poppema

    ‘This will be happening’

    Following a Memorandum of Understanding signed last week, RUG president Sibrand Poppema confirms that the Yantai campus will begin its first classes in 2017 rather than 2016. He says there is little reason not to move ahead with the plans, despite criticism ranging from the university to the Dutch House of Representatives.

    in short

    Although the stated start date for the University of Groningen Yantai plans has always been 2016, RUG president Sibrand Poppema admits that he has known since March that 2017 was more likely.

    Poppema could not officially announce the 2017 start until a Memorandum of Understanding was signed last week in Beijing.

    The breakneck pace of the plans thus far has been facilitated by support from the powers-that-be in Dutch and Chinese government.

    Be that as it may, student and staff members of the involved faculties and councils still say that critical questions about the plans have not been satisfactorily answered.

    He says that he can live with the criticism: the transparent nature of negotiations in the Netherlands means everyone has to be free to speak their minds, including him.

    Poppema also acknowledges that the plans will only be officially approved once the Chinese Ministry of Education has accepted the RUG’s proposal without any ‘unusual prerequisites’.

    full version

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    One week ago, RUG President Sibrand Poppema signed the latest Memorandum of Understanding in Beijing in the presence of Chinese president Xi Jinping – pulling that off was something that Poppema himself describes as ‘a miracle’ (see box ‘Behind-the-scenes’). Now, it’s the first week of November, but although the Chinese partners aimed at a start in 2016, from the beginning of the negotiations the figurehead of the university knew that it was more likely that the branch campus would begin in 2017 instead.

    ‘I used this artificial haste in preparation for this moment that I knew would come’, he explains, seated in his office on the Oude Boteringestraat. His intention was to ensure that the partners in China also had a sense of urgency. ‘If I wasn’t in a hurry, no one else would have been in a hurry, either.’

    Despite the publically proclaimed start date of 2016 for the preparatory year courses from China Agricultural University – and the subsequent extra man hours made available to the involved faculties and the university bureau – Poppema knew all along that 2017 was when the University of Groningen Yantai would actually begin.

    Breakneck pace

    Poppema says it was a deliberate decision not to announce the true frame before it was written in stone or, as it turned out, at least signed in the presence of the president of China and the king of the Netherlands.

    ‘In the contract, it is stated that we will begin in 2016 or a year following the definitive approval from the Chinese Ministry of Education. But we do not yet have their approval because we have yet to submit anything to them, and we need another Memorandum of Understanding before we will be doing that.’

    Yet it has been the breakneck pace of the negotiations so far that has been perhaps the most consistent cause for concern among RUG staff. Complaints that plans were being made in a rush without due consideration have been shared across the university, in particular in the various faculty councils and committees that are involved with the plans.

    ‘A year extra’

    Poppema concedes that the idea of starting in 2016 may have been alarming to employees, but he believes that the newly stated goal of 2017 should give staff more confidence: ‘Soon, we can officially say that there is a year extra’, he says. Even with a little more breathing room, the plan remains to submit a proposal to the Chinese Ministry of Education by the end of 2015 to ensure that the RUG will be one among the ten Sino-foreign branch campuses.

    The plans clearly have heavy-hitting support both in the Netherlands and in China. From Yantai to Beijing and from Groningen to The Hague, political figures on every level have pitched in to help to bring the plans so far so quickly. And despite dozens of critical voices from across the university, Poppema insists that there is ample support: he refers to official assent given by the University Council, favourable but also critical reception from the board members of all RUG faculties and positive feedback from the RUG’s supervisory board.

    With that in mind, he says, ‘If we are able to conclude the negotiations in a positive way, then it will be happening. It would be idiotic to say that we have done all of this and made all of these agreements and instigated the university council only to say no.’

    Not officially approved

    Poppema fully acknowledges that the plans have yet to be officially approved of, however. The last hurdle – and really the only legally binding hurdle – is approval of the proposal, including curriculum, by the Chinese Ministry of Education. But he also says one more Memorandum of Understanding has to be signed before taking that step, and matters of academic freedom, internet access and quality control based upon Dutch educational standards have to be affirmed. Providing that the Ministry of Education does not impose any ‘unusual prerequisites’ on the RUG’s proposal, ‘That’s it. And once those three aspects have been agreed upon, then the branch campus will proceed.’

    But those who are critical of plans both in Groningen as well as in The Hague, including several members of the Dutch House of Representatives, claim that president Poppema is guided by megalomania in conducting the Yantai negotiations.

    Poppema has his own points of critique for the university. He dismisses criticisms about support from businesses, impact on the rankings and approval by the Dutch ministry of education named in the FEB-Yantai Advisory Committee report as baseless. In an interview published in De Volkskrant on Monday, Poppema described these claims made in the report as unfortunate ‘wisecracking’. The university president also referred to the response from within the University Council following a controversial vote for a branch campus this summer as ‘pitiful’.


    He acknowledges that such terms could be perceived as disrespectful, but he also says that due to the transparent nature of negotiations in the Netherlands, everyone has to be free to speak their minds: that includes him, too. ‘What did you think about the report from the Yantai advisory committee? Did you think that was very respectful for them to say, ‘Oh, Poppema says this and that, but none of it is true’? How respectful is that?’ But in spite of the critical points, Poppema maintains that the committee is in fact in favour of the UGY plans.

    Despite scepticism from within the university community, Poppema is steadfast in his vision that a branch campus in China is not a burden for the university but rather an opportunity for salvation. In light of the alarming decrease in student numbers this year, Poppema continues to herald the University of Groningen Yantai’s ability to increase the RUG’s notoriety in Asia as a sure-fire way to keep the university from shrinking: ‘That is why we are doing this for this university’, Poppema says. ‘This is meant to ensure that in any given number of years in the future, we will have our own fate in our hands by having a greater influence on the number of students than we would otherwise have.’


    Behind-the-scenes: at the negotiating table

    President Poppema avows that every single detail about the Yantai plans is communicated as quickly as possible to the university staff. But how are the negotiations themselves going? Poppema mentioned to De Volkskrant that he was on the verge of walking away from the negotiations last week – what happened?

    ‘Last week, it became apparent that my two partners (representatives from China Agricultural University and the city of Yantai – ed.) were not completely in agreement with each other’, Poppema says. It had something to do with the expenses surrounding the campus that had been incurred at some point in the past twelve years since the CAU campus was built in the city. In any case, it had nothing to do with the RUG, but Poppema was stuck in the middle.

    That inability to see eye to eye meant that the latest version of the tripartite agreement among the RUG, CAU and Yantai had not yet been submitted to the Ministry of Education by Thursday: that was a big problem, since the signing ceremony where Chinese president Xi Jinping and Dutch king Willem Alexander would be present was happening on Monday. Not submitting it also meant that the RUG was no longer on the list to participate in the signing ceremony. ‘Obviously, I was beyond thrilled by all of this on Thursday’, Poppema jokes.

    ‘We have to sign this now’

    But seriously. That was the moment when he threatened to walk away from the negotiating table. ‘I said to my partners, ‘it’s all well and good that you don’t agree on this, but we have all agreed on the negotiations up to now and we all want this university to happen, and we have to sign this now. If we don’t sign it now, I will have to walk away and probably not come back.’ It would have been a serious loss of face to the Dutch ministries and other government officials to come back empty handed at this point, Poppema explains.

    The tactic did the trick: CAU went to the Ministry of Education and had all the necessary paperwork done within two hours. But then, it was a matter of getting back on the list for the Monday ceremony. It didn’t hurt that the Chinese vice minister of education, Hao Ping, was up to speed on the Yantai plans and was in favour of seeing them progress.

    ‘He made some calls and did his very best to put us back on the list, as did the Chinese ambassador in the Netherlands and the Dutch embassy. In short: everyone did their damnedest to help us out, and it worked. It was miraculous.’

    By the skin of their teeth

    On Friday, everything seemed to be back on track – that is, until Poppema discovered that the version of the agreement which had been prepared was based on a version from CAU rather than the version from Yantai. Unfortunately, the CAU version still contained the clause about the financial matter. So, they spent the weekend continuing to disagree, and Poppema once again felt compelled to intervene: he sent them a ‘clear’ email that more or less included instructions for how the two parties could solve their problems.

    It took them working around the existing agreement somehow, but it came together all the same. By then, it was 3 o’ clock on Sunday afternoon, and the papers had to be reorganised yet again by 4:30 in order to be given to the Dutch ambassador who in turn had to give them to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in time for the Monday ceremony. They pulled it off by the skin of their teeth.

    ‘But that is not unusual for negotiations in China’, Poppema says. ‘They can go right up to the last minute and still change, and sometimes, they fail. Usually, it all works out, but it can fail sometimes, too.’


    Many doubts about Yantai

    There is absolutely sufficient public support for the campus in Yantai, according to RUG president Poppema. But there still seems to be quite a bit of doubt about the plans emanating from the involved faculties.

    The campus in China is meant to begin with programmes from two faculties: Economics & Business (FEB) and Mathematics & Natural Sciences (FMNS). Eventually, the Faculty of the Arts is also expected to teach courses in China as well. None of the faculties are really and truly completely in favour of the plans.

    ‘How does this benefit the faculty?’

    ‘We don’t really see the advantages at the moment. We aren’t convinced’, says Fieke van der Lecq, an economist and professor of pension markets. Van der Lecq is one of the members of the Board of Advisors for FEB, a committee of heavy hitters from the business world that advises the faculty in various ways.

    Last month, the committee spoke with the faculty board about Yantai. ‘The most important question is: how does this benefit the faculty? What do they get in return?’, says Van der Lecq. ‘It costs a lot of man power, energy and money. And for that same amount of money, they could milk it for all it’s worth for a couple of years and then say, ‘Okay, thanks guys! Bye!’

    ‘Can you safeguard quality?’

    The Board of Advisors agrees with the Yantai Advisory Committee, a group that was created in order to advise the faculty in the development of the Yantai plans. The committee describes the plans as ‘a leap in the dark’ and debunks virtually every stated potential advantage of the campus.

    ‘I personally don’t see the benefit for the university at this point. Instead of starting a campus in China, you should be attracting Chinese students here. That offers more certainty and benefits. That way, you have their tuition fees, and they may choose to remain in the Netherlands. You have returns on that. It’s still not clear what the employment status will be of the research staff and who will be ultimately responsible for the educational programme, yet the graduates will receive a diploma from the RUG. What does that mean, then? Can you sufficiently safeguard the quality of education? That is what concerns us’, says Van der Lecq.

    Critical questions

    The faculty council, which represents the students and staff of the faculty, also remains unconvinced. ‘The most important critical questions that we – and many others – have been asking since April remain unanswered at this point. There is no valid business case and the risk analysis still hasn’t been worked out. Combined with the growing requirements and commitments that the RUG seems to be taking on publicly, this is a grave conclusion’, says faculty chairperson Kees van Veen.

    The faculty board has only general remarks about the plans. ‘We are critical’, said dean Harry Garretsen following an informational meeting for FEB staff. ‘But we think that it may very well work, so we think that we should continue following this path for now until a definitive decision has been made.’

    ‘The RUG has to proceed with caution if it pursues this path’, says Van der Lecq. ‘And as I understand it, the faculty board is not fundamentally opposed to the plans, but they simply have many questions and lingering doubts. And that is a sentiment that we endorse.’

    ‘What are the benefits?’

    There are not yet any concrete plans to teach courses from the arts faculty. But the possibility of providing courses from European Languages & Culture and International Relations & European Integration is being heavily considered.

    ‘The plans remain vague’, confirms faculty chairperson Hans Jansen. As such, the students and the staff in the council do not yet have an official position on the matter. ‘The doubt pertains to the appropriateness of these programmes for a campus in China, because knowledge of culture and Western history and ways of thinking differ so strongly that it could lead to problems with equivalency, quality and input. The staff faction also questions what the benefit would be for our Dutch students, our education and research.’

    ‘More than a few questions’

    The board of FMNS is clearer about their standpoint. They are in favour, says dean Jasper Knoester. ‘That is clear from the collaboration that has originated from this faculty’, he says. But even he remains cautious. ‘Of course the plans can only become a reality if certain conditions are met. That is a subject of constant discussion between parties both within and outside of the RUG.’

    The staff members and students in the faculty council still have ‘more than a few questions’, says chairperson Marc van der Maarel. ‘A written analysis about the utility and necessity of the plans based upon facts is still missing. The board of FWN has indicated that they have considered creating such an analysis but that is not yet official on paper.’

    The University Council has also granted right of assent for a campus in Yantai, thanks to a majority vote from the student factions. But the student groups have also been struck by doubts. All factions – students and staff alike – have requested more clarity from the University Board. ‘We need a clear outline of current and potential problems that the University of Groningen may face; a clear list of opportunities at Yantai needs to be made to solve the above mentioned problems; and a clear and honest list of the risks and potential dangers.’