A fine romance: australian university engagement with china

Professor Margaret Gardner AO President and Vice-Chancellor Monash University, Deputy Chair, UA Board

16 December 2016

Margaret Gardener.jpgIn drawing the outlines of engagement between Australian and Chinese universities, one must paint with a very broad brush.

Engagement between Australia and China in higher education has a relatively short history, taking shape from the late 20th century. However, in less than forty years that engagement has expanded rapidly and become more diverse. 

The nature of that engagement is driven by the nature and demands of higher education in each country, as well as national goals for higher education and research. 

Australia and China share many goals for higher education. At the most general level, both nations embrace both the development and expansion of a skilled and educated workforce and the development of an innovative economy to fuel future prosperity.

However, the way those broader goals are expressed depends on the nature of our respective economies and university systems, as well as government priorities.

Moreover, while it is clear there is strong engagement between Australian and Chinese universities, there are significant differences in scale that must be acknowledged. The number of universities in Australia is 43, while in China there are more than two thousand. The Australian university student population is some 1.3 million, and for China the number is many, many times greater.

When we talk of the level of commitment and engagement between the two systems we must understand that the measure of that engagement is relative to the scale of each system. For Australia, students from China make up the largest group of international students on Australian university campuses. Australian students will never hold that position among their more numerous international counterparts in Chinese universities. 

Yet for Australian students choosing to spend part of their degree studying abroad, China was the second most popular destination in 2014 – more popular than the UK or Europe – with some 4,411 Australian students choosing to study in China in 2015.

Destination austr students
Source: Harrison and Potts (2016)

In a relatively short time, the relationship between the two countries’ higher education systems has gone through two broad stages. The first was the “getting to know you” stage characterised by exploration, experimentation and “romance”. The second is the stage we have entered in the last decade, the “maturation” stage characterised by building relationships, deepening partnerships and “settling in”.

In the getting to know you stage much of what happened was exploration by universities and individuals within the broad policy settings set by the two governments. Australian universities benefited from large numbers of Chinese students coming to study in Australia, as well as transnational education partnerships. These partnerships allowed Chinese students come to Australia in the final years of their degrees and Australian staff to go to China to teach.

We also saw many agreements signed for further cooperation across education and research between Australian and Chinese universities.

The result from the Australian side was a much greater understanding of China, Chinese universities and Chinese students. More Chinese students came to Australia than the reverse. This is, as I mentioned, to be expected because of the significant difference in the size of population. 

The Australian universities with their Chinese counterparts built experience in how they would and could work together. Every Australian university built its links with and understanding of China. In other words, the foundations on which stronger engagement might be developed were thoroughly explored through the 1990s and early 2000s.

We have now entered the second stage, the maturation of this engagement or the settling in stage. Both Australian and Chinese governments have become more directly focused on this relationship, with both governments moving beyond setting the frameworks for more active engagement. 

On the Australian side in the last few years there has been the Australia-China Science and Research Fund, which funds Joint Research Centres (JRC), Australia-China Science Academies Symposia Series and the Young Scientist Exchange Program. My own university, Monash, is a lead partner in two such JRCs, one in light metals with Central South University and one on the future dairy manufacturing with Soochow University. Many such JRCs have begun in the last two years and they see wide involvement from Australian universities. 

The New Colombo Plan, along with other government schemes, funded 1,400 Australian undergraduates to study in China in 2017. This was a welcome boost to an increasing trend of Australian students choosing to study in China – the number of Australians studying in China has increased over 80% in the last five years. This indicates the strong interest of Australian students, supported by their universities and the federal government, to gain experience of China through education there.

Also during this last decade, there has been a refinement in the agreements and relationships of Australian and Chinese universities. There are deeper and more longstanding research relationships. These see engagement not only with universities, but also with Chinese industry. 

In my own university, a campus in Suzhou with South East University to deliver postgraduate education has been established. Relationships in areas such as sustainable development, additive manufacturing and food innovation have been developed with Chinese universities and industry partners. Such relationships that bring Australian universities and Chinese universities together along with industry partners are becoming even more common in the last few years. These relationships also include greater staff exchange and mobility between countries.

The numbers of Chinese university students studying in Australia is large, some 110,000 in 2016, but the composition of this cohort of students has changed with a slightly higher percentage studying Masters than undergraduate degrees. This is a change from previous decades. I expect the fields of education in which Chinese students are studying will also become more diverse in the years to come.

Chinese intl student enrol
Source: Department of Education and Training

There are a number of longstanding transnational education partnerships involving recognition of qualifications between China and Australia. These partnerships have expanded to include postgraduate degrees, as well as, in some cases, joint degree offerings. 

Education relationships forged in the past few decades have expanded or grown into new fields or types of degrees. Research partnerships have blossomed and acquired industry partners. Research collaborations spanning the two nations have increased.

None of this would have occurred without supportive government frameworks, but it has been aided in Australia by more direct funding support from government for exchange and research.

For Australian universities, engagement with China and Chinese universities is strong and growing stronger, rivaling traditional relationships with US and UK universities. It is clearly one of Australia’s most significant international higher education engagements and involvement will only increase.

In my view, we are about to enter a third stage of the relationship. This next stage will see freer exchange of staff and students, more diversified relationships, longer chains of partnership across and between institutions, and stronger links between industry and university partners in Australia and China.

The engagement between Australian and Chinese universities has been a fine romance, fast to develop and spread, but now deepening. And on its current trajectory it will become, in the years ahead, a deeper and more comprehensive relationship.

This is an edited speech by Professor Gardner to Universities Australia’s Australia-China Higher Education Forum (Beijing, China, October 2016).