To go or not to go

Any day now, the university should hear if the Chinese Ministry of Education has accepted their plans for launching the Yantai branch campus. With that in mind, we figured it was high time to examine the pros and cons of a go or no go.
By Traci White


– Friends in high places

The Yantai plans have some pretty heavy hitting players on their side. The city of Groningen is officially friends with Yantai – a decision that came long after the plans were announced. The current Dutch Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker, is already eager about the idea, as is Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Dutch King Willem Alexander and none other than Chinese president Xi Jinping were present during the signing of the latest memorandum of understanding for the collaboration with China Agricultural University last year.

– China has a lot of people

And the Netherlands does not: by 2020, the number of university-aged students will begin to decline dramatically. In 2002, the birth rate in the country started to go down, which means that Dutch universities will literally not have enough students from the Netherlands alone to avoid shrinking. Enter: Yantai. Even though Chinese students at Yantai will not be required to come to Groningen, the RUG is counting on at least a fraction of the students at the branch campus choosing to come to Groningen as graduate students.

– Study on the beach

The weather in Yantai is temperate but a little bit warmer than Groningen. The city is located in the northeastern part of China, above the Yangtze river and far away from the megacities of Beijing and Shanghai. The coastal location and smaller size (by Chinese standards) of the city also mean that the smog level is relatively low. The campus where the RUG plans to set up shop is 600 metres from the beach, and Yantai itself lies on the coast between the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea – and about 350 kilometres west of North Korea.

– Bonus publications

Staff at the University of Groningen-Yantai will have dual appointments at the RUG, which means that Groningen stands to benefit from scientific articles that are published based on research conducted in Yantai. Hello, rankings! Conversely, the reputation (read: accreditation) of the faculties in Groningen with curricula also offered in China will not be linked to the performance in Yantai. In other words, the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences will not be negatively impacted if the Chinese versions of their programmes do not perform on the same level.

– Having a place to study in China

China is a big deal nowadays. Not only is it the most populous country in the world, but its economy and industries are also growing dramatically. The RUG’s leadership talks up the potential for Dutch students to get a foot in the door at Asian businesses as well as Dutch multinationals operating in Asia, such as FrieslandCampina. But no specific agreements have been made just yet.

– No guinea pigs

Groningen may be the first Dutch research university that plans to set up shop in China, but they are certainly not the first foreign university. Two British universities and two American universities have already had branch campuses up and running in China for years.


– Branch campuses take time

Most international branch campuses take years to meet their full enrolment goals, if they ever do. And Groningen is hoping to snag 10,000 students in Yantai. And those students are likely to be paying tuition fees in the neighbourhood of 12,000 euros, which is much more expensive than fees at Chinese universities, which range between 3,000 and 9,000 euros.

– There is a lot of doubt in Groningen

Questions about the financial benefit to the RUG, implications for workload if instructors work at both campuses, and requirements to translate curricula into English remain, among others. The Faculty of Economics and Business actually postponed their participation until at least 2020. At the point that the faculties had to decide if they were in or out of the first round of programmes heading east, FEB felt they still did not have enough information to move forward based on the lack of a business case. FEB was identified early on as a candidate to go to Yantai, but when the definitive list for the first batch of classes was published, the faculty was nowhere to be found.

– Prohibited internet access

The Great Wall of China is not the only imposing barrier fencing China in: there is basically an entirely separate version of the internet, apps and social media in the massive Asian nation. That means that students hoping to access scholarly articles from sources outside of China are often out of luck, unless they can use a VPN. Services connected to Google, such as Gmail and the search engine itself, do not work. That presents a challenge for a university whose entire email system is hosted by Google Apps.

– Difficult to guarantee English levels

On account of very few Chinese students speaking Dutch, the language spoken on the campus will be English. But universities outside of China often struggle to confirm the level of English spoken by Chinese applicants: applications are often prepared by recruitment agents, and certificates purportedly proving language proficiency are difficult to verify.

– Money stays in China

Having a campus in China may serve as a decent business card for the RUG, but it will not be bringing the university any additional income. Any profits generated by the university, be it through tuition fees or otherwise, will not land in the RUG’s pockets: it stays in China and has to be reinvested in the branch campus itself.

– Academic freedom and freedom of speech

China is not exactly famous for embracing dissent. See: Tiananmen Square. (But if you’re in China, you can’t. You may not even be able to view this article because it includes the phrase ‘Tiananmen Square’. Never mind.) For a lecturer, that can be tricky, especially for an instructor who wants to discuss historic events, like Tiananmen Square. The first programmes that are meant to be taught in Yantai are all STEM – chemistry, engineering, life science and mathematics – rather than any liberal arts or humanities. But with the possibility to add European Languages and Cultures at some point down the road, guaranteeing that instructors can speak freely about the topics they teach is crucial.




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