Chen Zhengyi is a freshman at an American university, and yet she has never left China. This year, the 17-year-old enrolled at the Shanghai campus of New York University (NYU), east of the financial district of China’s largest city.
While a total of 523,700 Chinese students set sail for universities abroad in 2015 — the largest number ever recorded — Chen chose to stay, believing that NYU Shanghai offered the same education and would open doors to similar jobs and future prospects as the school’s campus in New York or other U.S.-based universities with comparable reputations.
NYU Shanghai does offer many of the same subjects as its American and Chinese peers, but one key difference compared with local universities is that students at the school don’t pick a major until their second year, which gives them time to explore where their interests and talents lie, Chen said. “Plus, we can experience different cultures, since half of our students are foreigners and every dorm has to have [at least] one student from abroad,” she said. “You can communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds and adjust to each other.”
People walk by a building on the New York University Shanghai campus in Pudong New Area, Aug. 5, 2014. The campus is located in one of the most expensive parts of the city. Jia Yanan/Sixth Tone
According to NYU Shanghai media representative Tannia Xia, there are financial advantages, too. While the school puts the cost of attending for the 2016-2017 academic year at a little more than $57,000 (about 396,000 yuan), around two-thirds of the tuition for Chinese students is covered by the government, bringing the fee for Chinese nationals down to 100,000 yuan, Xia told Sixth Tone.
Studying at NYU in the U.S. would not only cost several times as much as in Shanghai, but students like Chen would also have to go through an admissions process that values personal development — a criterion many Chinese students struggle with — in addition to good grades. The campus in China, however, accepts local students based on an interview and their results on the gaokao, the national college entrance exam.
Opened in 2013 as a joint venture with East China Normal University, which did not reply to a request for comment, NYU Shanghai will graduate its first class of students — roughly half of them Chinese — next year. Other west-meets-east partnerships, like Duke Kunshan University, have come to fruition since — an entire decade after the University of Nottingham Ningbo China became the first Sino-foreign joint venture to open its doors in 2004.
For overseas universities, the benefits of seeking new frontiers abroad are numerous. Mary Brown Bullock, Duke Kunshan’s executive vice chancellor, said she welcomes the opportunity for the university to facilitate a more effective exchange of teaching and research ideas between American and Chinese higher education.
In addition, university partnerships provide “a key axis for U.K.-China relations to build on,” wrote Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, an international nonprofit lobbying organization. Of course, one of the largest motivations may be monetary, with CHEMS Consulting higher education consultant John Fielden attributing the trend of partnerships between British and foreign schools to “tremendous competition at home to get international students, and the realisation that there is a market for U.K. degrees in the students’ home countries.
Michael Lukiman sits in the student lounge he helped design on New York University’s Shanghai campus, September 2016. Li Sizhe for Sixth Tone
The NYU joint venture has been well-received among students both from China and from the U.S., said Michael Lukiman, an NYU Shanghai student from California. “Being in China makes you feel like a fish in a big ocean,” he said, adding that he appreciates the experience of living abroad and the on-campus diversity. “I was looking for an out-of-the-ordinary experience with some discomfort and adventure,” he said. “The opportunity to be the pilot group of anything is an honor,” he added, pointing to the international atmosphere and the opportunities that studying at NYU Shanghai had opened up for him.
In fact, all of the international and local students Sixth Tone spoke to had nothing but praise for their university on the mainland. However, not everyone is applauding China’s educational joint ventures.
While the municipal governments of Shanghai and other cities are encouraging these partnerships by footing a large portion of the bill, President Xi Jinping has warned against Western education in China. In a speech at a conference on Communist Party-building in universities in 2014, he said that “universities are charged with the high responsibility of studying, researching, and propagating Marxism, and with training the next generation of builders of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The same year, the Chinese Communist Party issued two documents prohibiting the study of subjects such as civil society, free press, and Western democracy at higher education institutions, and calling for the “cleansing of Chinese universities and cultural institutions of Western-inspired liberal ideas,” according to an internal party document that was never publicly released but was quoted by retired major-general Song Fangmin.
But NYU Shanghai never had any intention of being a typical American university, said media representative Xia. “We do not carry on American values,” she said. “NYU Shanghai is part of New York University’s global education system.”
According to China’s regulations on “Chinese-foreign cooperation in running schools,” the domestic co-head of an academic joint venture must be “a Chinese national who loves the motherland” who “has been approved by the authorities.” Additionally, the Chinese government owns a 51-percent stake in NYU Shanghai — campuses that are majority foreign-owned are not permitted. These majority stakes give the government the power to make significant decisions, including those having to do with human resources.
By extension, the ownership rules could give the government control over hiring, a possibility that was heavily criticized by Robert Daly, director of the nonprofit research organization Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, who described this as an intrusion on U.S. labor law. “U.S. colleges and universities should not allow the Chinese government or its agencies to appoint any faculty or instructors on American campuses, to violate U.S. fair hiring laws, or to dictate program conditions that violate best U.S. practices,” Daly wrote.
The presence of party branches at joint-venture universities — a common feature of every business on the Chinese mainland — is also worrisome, said Cao Yaxue, director of ChinaChange.org, a news and commentary website. “These universities like to portray the party’s presence as nothing but benign, ignoring that its purpose is to monitor freedom of expression and encourage self-censorship,” Cao said.
The effects of such oversight may be reflected in the lack of student organizations, considered a quintessential part of the university experience in the U.S. The only political organization Sixth Tone was able to find at NYU Shanghai was the party’s Communist Youth League. NYU Shanghai representatives would not comment on political organizations on campus.
Students attend a ‘Hack Shanghai’ event on campus at New York University Shanghai, Nov. 15, 2014. Zhou Kai/VCG
Sydney Bender, an NYU Shanghai student from Pennsylvania, told Sixth Tone that the fact that the campus is located in China can also be seen in the curriculum, which differs from that of its U.S. counterpart. “The courses are generally centered around China,” said Bender. “For example, a course in religion would focus on Buddhism and Taoism and the like, and rarely would one be offered that covers Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.”
The craze for international degrees has only grown in recent years, with 700,000 Chinese students expected to study abroad in 2017. Some proponents of joint-venture universities see them as a way to make higher education on the mainland more enticing to Chinese students, considering that half of the 4 million students who have studied abroad since 1978 have not returned to China, according to the Ministry of Education.
At the moment, university joint ventures are able to operate relatively freely in China, Daly of the Kissinger Institute said. However, based on his six years directing the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center, Daly said he’s not sure how long that freedom will last. The Chinese government, he said, sees higher education as a way to train people who will advance the nation’s economic growth, while universities in Western countries seek to “create knowledge through free inquiry, to transmit knowledge through teaching, and to foster the judgment of individual students so that they can effectively pursue their individual goals, regardless of what the national interest may be, Chinese universities are responsible to the state.”
Based on his own experience, Daly said he wouldn’t advise Western universities to set up new partnerships in China. “It will be hard enough for established institutions to survive with their academic integrity intact,” he said.
Additional reporting by Li You. With contributions from Wang Yiwei and Denise Hruby.
(Header image: Parents listen to a staff member from New York University’s Shanghai campus after an enrollment consultation, Nov. 3, 2013. Lu Haitao/Sixth Tone)