How do you feel about the advice in hindsight? Do you still support the recommendations you gave back then?
‘Certainly! The piece asked a lot of critical questions that weren’t asked during the discussion back then, or that hadn’t been adequately answered. In our eyes, the expected revenue was overestimated, and the risks and necessary efforts were underestimated. The fact that a preparatory year in Yantai in September 2016 was an unrealistic goal was confirmed early on, and it looks like we’ll be drawing the same conclusions about starting in 2017.’
Have the questions and concerns that that were included in your advice been answered to your satisfaction?
‘We can’t really answer that with a straightforward ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, if for no other reason than that we’ve received very little information since January. So that means that our recommendations have not been met: getting people more involved and gaining approval on the work floor, by operating transparently and communicating openly.
But as far as we can see, any information about the developments that happened over the past year has always been made confidential, and was therefore only disseminated to a limited group of people. That is strange and counterproductive for a project that can only succeed if it has university-wide support. Because of that, certain viewpoints remained unchallenged and the available knowledge and expertise was barely utilised. It’s certainly in stark contrast with the working method we at the advisory committee envisioned when we at FEB were still considering a faculty business case.’
That university business case you asked for has now been drawn up. Doesn’t that mean that one important recommendation has been realised?
‘We’d like to concur, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. Obviously the existence of the business case is a good thing, but it came about very late, and only when the important stakeholders (the ministry, University Council, the Supervisory Board) insisted on it. This seriously limited the role the business case should have played in the decision-making process: a critical, objective preliminary investigation into the desirability and feasibility of the plan. The Yantai project was labelled ‘yes, unless…’ too much and too soon, while the business case’s findings also should have been able to lead to a delay or even cancellation of the plans.’
So would you say it’s a typical case of ‘too little, too late’? Is that really all there is to say about this almost 40-page report?
‘Certainly not. It clearly took a lot of time and effort, and it does have some results to show for it. For example, there was an attempt to make the Yantai project part of the university strategy. The approach used for that was internationalisation. But why we’ve chosen a) a branch campus, b) in China, c) in Yantai, d) with the CAU, other reason than that the opportunity arose, is still unclear.
No one is considering alternative strategies
No one is considering alternative strategies.
We appreciate that more context is provided in a chapter titled ‘Internal and External Developments’. And, in contrast with the risk inventory that was published last year, the business case does differentiate among the numerous risks. The project is now considered high-risk in four areas (including staff support, which was deemed to be essential), moderately risky in eleven areas and low-risk in three areas. And the earlier position, postulated so groundlessly, that Yantai will improve our position in the rankings as well as our global reputation, is also being examined, unfortunately without any encouraging results. At none of the other institutions we looked at, such as predecessors Nottingham or Liverpool, were such results achieved.
But there are also some points the business case doesn’t address or doesn’t address to the degree we had hoped. In no particular order:
• What can Yantai’s industrial park offer us? What kind of businesses are located there? How large are they and how likely is it that they will provide opportunities for research collaboration? We’ve had a list of meaningless names for a long time now. FMNS noticed that there was not a lot of activity in the park, and we also know that at least for now, the Yantai park doesn’t hold a candle to, for example, the Suzhou Industrial Park which houses Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (2,100 international businesses, of which more than a 100 are on the Fortune 500 list). The business case adds nothing to this limited knowledge.
• What will CAU be bringing to the table? There are references to opportunities in the field of agri-food, but this is not expounded upon. When we visited the Faculty of Economics and Management at CAU in November 2015 we got the strong impression that the people there are very hesitant, if not reserved.
We’re very concerned about that
• What kind of problems can we expect, per discipline, when quality and cultural scientific staff leave Groningen for Yantai for several months or longer – the latter being of great importance for a stable UGY? We’re greatly concerned about that at FEB. In International Business, for example, the approved International Classroom and Language and Culture Policy projects cannot start any time soon, because no replacement has been found for the staff members who are willing to do the project. And that’s just 1,000 teaching hours. What will we do when two scientific staff members are taken from each programme’s teaching staff? Similar concerns exist surrounding the enormous amount of time and energy that managers and senior staff members have spent at the Yantai office of the university. Can this continue without damaging the necessary further development of the RUG in Groningen? The business case does name the negative effects on their own organisation as a reason why some universities decided to not pursue an International Joint University, and this was also a point of contention in FEB’s research visitation.
• Why is the business case team, without any further research, adopting the position that UGY is unique due to the attention that will be given to research? Our years of collaboration with Liverpool-Suzhou and Nottingham Ningbo, as well as our extensive contact with prof. Gow, Nottingham Ningbo’s founding provost, have taught us that in both cases, research was indeed included in the plans. Both universities belong to the Russell Group of research-intensive universities and it’s possible that they can afford to open a branch without a firm research foundation. But how were they able to recruit reputable scientists for their new branch without the promise of substantial research time? However, the sticking point was the fact in the first few years, research was constantly under heavy pressure from all the problems facing a fledgling university: developing and fine-tuning a curriculum, creating a proper supporting body, organising quality care, improving student recruitment, the continuous recruitment of staff, etc.
• One final aspect that we found puzzling is the ahistorical nature of the business case. The whole piece is treating the project as though we are still at the start of the process (which, in an ideal situation, we would have been). Take for instance the important matter of staff commitment in Groningen. Surely, the writers of this business case must have seen that not only is the support at FEB very limited, but that there is a lot of resistance among other departments involved, such as Chemistry. You would expect these circumstances to be explicitly named and analysed, but it is only pointed out in the broadest of terms that the deans and the Board of Directors should be attentive to ‘including’ the work floor.’
It’s clear that this particular business case has not convinced you of the use and feasibility of the Yantai project. How do you think things will proceed?
‘That is guesswork. But let’s limit ourselves to an optimistic/realistic scenario. In that scenario, the RUG generally fares the way the two most successful predecessors, Nottingham and Liverpool, have fared. UGY becomes an enterprise that mainly commits to the central level. It ‘belongs’ to the corporation, rather than to the Groningen operating company, the faculties. They will relate to the other campus which, by the way, is not a branch campus but an independent university, in a professional manner, i.e., in their own interest.’
There will be a lot of problems in the early years
There will be a lot of problems in the early years: Financial agreements between the partners that are interpreted differently, disappointing student quality, problems with the curriculum and courses that aren’t always up to scratch, teachers unable to find their feet, insufficient support, etc. The quality of a lot of the programmes at the RUG took years to achieve. It’s almost impossible to just go ahead and transplant that. And in order to recruit good students, you need a name and a reputation. And UGY still has to build that name and reputation. As we said earlier, scientific research will have trouble getting off the ground. Turnover among scientific staff and (western) supporting and managerial staff will be sizeable, and the core staff will spend a lot of time recruiting and training new employees. Because the Groningen faculties are only marginally committed and interested, the scientific staff will have to be recruited externally by and large.
This will be a contributing factor in hampering the relationship between the academic staff in Groningen and Yantai. And even if any kind of paying collaborations with the surrounding industries are established, it will be focused mainly on the Yantai branch and not on Groningen. Even in the case of limited collaboration, there is a considerable burden on the faculties to maintain the quality in Yantai and to sufficiently synchronise the programmes. Any compensation for this will be insufficient, in spite of the endeavoured integral cost calculation, and will therefore lead to hidden costs for the Groningen faculties, if only in the form of incomplete or unequivocal replacements for the outsourced staff.
Just like in Ningbo and Suzhou, the number of foreign students will be relatively small. In Nottingham Ningbo, the amount of foreign (non-Chinese) students, for instance, is ten per cent after eleven years. These students pay 80,000 RMB (10,700 euros) in tuition, while UGY has calculated tuition fees of 12,500 euros. In short, the most likely scenario is that the RUG will work really hard for meagre results, at least in the short term. China, and Yantai especially, has the most to gain from this. Over the past few years of our collaboration, we’ve been able to conclusively determine that universities such as Liverpool Suzhou and Nottingham Ningbo are an asset to the Chinese higher education first and foremost.’
What does all of this mean for FEB? Will the mood there change in the foreseeable future?
‘We don’t expect it to, no. The key question for FEB was and remains: does the Yantain plan, in addition to the necessary efforts, disadvantages, and risks, offer sufficient advantages and profits, even in comparison to alternative ways of internationalisation? Even after publication of the university business case, the answer to that question remains unclear, or even ‘no’. When a business case qualifies four crucial areas (work floor commitment, scientific staff recruitment, facilities, and means) as high-risk, it’s very difficult to infer a ‘go decision’ from that. Absent a convincing answer to the ‘why’ question, the faculty, we think, will prefer to continue investing in its own quality through even better research, a more distinctive range of programmes, signature areas, successful international classroom projects, language and cultural policies, learning communities, and worldwide partnerships, interpreting the concept of the global university in a different way. This will increase FEB’s attractiveness for both Dutch and foreign students, and for our industrial and academic partners. People will have more faith in that than in an uncertain Yantai project.’
Beppo van Leeuwen and Frans Rutten