Svetlana Krivokhizh, associate professor at The Department of Asian and African studies, HSE (Saint-Petersburg)
Maria Liamtceva, PR-manager at The Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund.
China’s activities oriented towards transformation of the country into an internationally recognised educational hub started not long ago. In 1998, President Jiang Zemin in his speech that marked the 100-year anniversary of the Peking University, set an ambitious goal to upgrade the system of higher education in China in order to push Chinese universities to the top of the world’s ratings. The plan did not only include increasing the quantity of national higher education institutions and the number of graduates (in 1998, there were only 8 million graduates in China and by 2005, the number increased to 30 million) but also improving the quality of Chinese education and its competitiveness on the global level. As a result, the government launched a number of programmes, with projects "211" and "985" being the most significant.
Peking University (northern gates)
The main goal of these initiatives was to raise Chinese universities’ research and education standards by stimulating them financially (including funding from local authority budgets), reforming the management system, boosting their academic mobility and expanding relations with the world’s leading institutions. For example, 112 universities included in the "Project 211" are responsible for cultivating high-level talents for Chinese economic and social development strategies.
As for "Project 985", during its first stage nine leading universities formed the "C9" League, often referred to as “China's Ivy League”. During the second stage of the program (launched in 2003) 39 more universities joined the project. In 2011, it was announced that the list of universities would no longer be expanded and that all efforts would be directed at the ones that have already been selected.
Alexey Maslov, head of the School of Asian Studies at the Higher School of Economics, member of the Bilateral sub-committee in the field of Education of the Russian-Chinese Commission for Humanitarian Cooperation, believes that higher education has become one of the largest commercial industries in China and is closely linked to the country’s propaganda efforts directed at other countries.
The academic exchange has long been considered an effective public diplomacy tool, since former foreign exchange students promote the language and culture of the host state where they have been trained. This can be more effective in improving international people-to-people relations than political or economic initiatives.
The Chinese government allocates great financial resources to scholarships intended for foreign students. The first Education Act, aimed at protecting the non-Chinese students’ rights, was adopted in 1995, and in 1997, the Chinese Scholarship Council was founded with the backing of the Ministry of Education. The number of foreign students receiving financial support from the Chinese government increases every year. In 2006, there were 10 thousand scholarship students, and 28 thousand in 2012.
The process of student enrolment and admission has also become noticeably more structured. Firstly, two-thirds of students come from Asian countries. South Korea leads the group and is followed by South-East Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. These countries even have a special Chinese Government Scholarship: the AUN Program scheme designed specifically for applicants from the region. The number of students from Central Asia and Russia also increases yearly. Since 2008, Kazakhstan has joined the 10 leading countries, whose nationals have received PRC scholarships. The Russian Federation occupies the fourth place China’s goal is to attract 500,000 foreign students by 2020. Experts believe that the above-mentioned countries are among the main targets of China's economic expansion.
Harbin Institute of Technology
In addition to training foreign students, the Chinese government promotes cooperation with leading universities in other countries (be it through bilateral relations or within the framework of an organisation), opening of branches of Chinese universities abroad and vice versa, joint training programs development, inviting foreign specialists to read lectures or conduct research. The promotion of these initiatives has been elaborated in section 16 of the national Medium and Long-term Plan for Educational Reform and Development (2010-2020).
Despite the fact that current Sino-Russian relations enjoy a high degree of mutual trust, contacts on the civil society level including joint projects in education and science remain at a very low level. The main reason for that is that the Chinese officials responsible for cooperation in this field focus primarily on major American and European educational centres. This tendency is acknowledged Russian universities’ representatives.
For example, a source from the Far Eastern Federal University believes that the high-ranking Chinese universities do not consider the FEFU a serious partner. “To be more precise, those who show interest in our university are not very interesting for us, as the FEFU has its own ambitions, and aims for cooperation only with top schools of higher education. I heard complaints from some university officials who said they feel awkward when bringing their senior executives to places in China, where good partner relationships have been set up and the Chinese are ready to agree to any offer. These usually include such remote places as Zibo or Mudanjiang”, he says.
A similar situation can be observed in the universities of Russia’s two capital cities.
Natalya Tsvetkova, professor of American Studies at the Saint Petersburg University, says that after the famous ‘pivot to Asia’ was announced in 2014, the university’s management declared the beginning of a new stage in their cooperation with China. As Ms Tsetkova says, “We have the same situation here as in the FEFU: most partnership offers are put forward by provincial educational institutions in China. For example, in 2014 we discussed the possibility of establishing a new institution in the Heilongjiang province with the participation of the Saint Petersburg University, Harbin Institute of Technology and Heilongjiang University. This project, however, is still under development.”
A number of specialists note that it is the Northeastern part of China that is mostly aiming for cooperation with Russia, while it seems impossible to establish reliable connections with Beijing universities. Practice seems to confirm this allegation, as the only launching planned is of the following institutions: the Surikov Institute of Fine Arts in the Harbin Normal University, the Russian-Chinese Testing Center and the Higher School of Translation on the basis of the Saint Petersburg and Heilongjiang universities, and the Collaborative Center for Biomedical Studies on the basis of the Saint Petersburg and Harbin Medical universities.
Specialists are also sceptical towards the Russian-Chinese University that is to be created based on the initiative of the Moscow State University and the Beijing Institute of Technology in Shenzhen. “I think Beijing does not need it. China wants the teaching process in this university to be provided not so much in Chinese as in English. And there are some restrictions on the number of the Russian staff. However, the main problem lies in the obscurity of the target audience: who is going to study there? Given that the university is fostered in a very competitive environment. The idea is quite good but not well thought-through,” says expert Alexey Maslov.
In a research paper published by the Russian International Affairs Council, Larisa Smirnova, senior research fellow at the Central Economic-Mathematical Institute of the RAS, foreign expert-teacher at the Xiamen University, states that the very small number of Russians who work in China is explained by the geopolitical tendency of most Chinese universities aiming at the standards of world leaders (such as the US) in science and higher education, and by the relative isolation of Russia from the world’s academic society.
Another factor that has made Russian universities less popular among promising Chinese students is the significant reduction in the schooling period in China. In other words, in Russia foreign students have to spend one year attending pre-university courses, four years to receive the bachelor’s degree, and another two years for the master’s degree. On the market of educational services, the seven-year offer to study in Russia is rather outdated. In addition, many programmes are provided in Russian language only, and it is very hard for students to reach a high enough level of Russian during one preparatory year preceding the undergraduate programme.
To be objective, however, it is important to note that the English language as well gives Chinese people some trouble. Together with the promotion of the Standard Mandarin, the task of improving the knowledge of Shakespeare’s language has been set. Starting from the early 2000s, we observe a boom in the popularity of English in China. In 2001, English was given the status of a mandatory subject in primary and secondary education and a subject required by the Gaokao (the National Higher Education Entrance Examination), along with the Standard Mandarin and Math. Today, 93.8 % of the students who have to study foreign languages choose English.
Andrey Karneev, associate director of the Institute of Asian and African Countries, claims that the scrupulousness and sometimes even standoffishness of Chinese partners can be explained by their rise in world rankings and quite extensive connections with Western, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and other universities.
Currently, only 1.5-2 % of all Chinese exchange students come to Russia. “If Russia wants to enter the Chinese educational market and achieve success on the educational services global market, it has to start with investments,” says Alexey Maslov. “There can be profit, but not during the first years. It will take at least 2-3 years before benefits are viable. Unfortunately, our side does not seem to understand this. We think that Chinese people will rush into our country the moment we invite them. However, this is not the case anymore. Developed countries offer Chinese people a large variety of scholarships to choose from. And in this context, Russia cannot hope to obtain even the second place in the rankings.”