Junior Shilei Chen traveled 7,000 miles for an American education.
The Beijing native said he transferred to GW from China Agricultural University last year to flee the “exam-oriented” culture of the country’s higher education system. He is one of 743 Chinese students at GW this year, a 30 percent increase from last year.
“In China, they put stress on memorization, but not enough on creativity and critical thinking,” Chen, who is looking to transfer into the GW School of Business, said.
As Chinese students flock to the U.S. for college, business school dean Doug Guthrie wants to bring that American education to them – first in their own backyards and then around the world.
If Guthrie’s plan takes shape, the University will become one of the few American degree-granting institutions in China by the fall of 2013 and could set up a program between the business school and the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences that spans three continents. The model would likely be the backbone of GW’s global ambitions as long as top administrators, faculty and Chinese officials give it the green light.
More than 40 percent of the courses business students take are in the Columbian College, Dean Peg Barratt said, making the liberal arts school a necessary partner.
A surging middle class and what Guthrie called a “bottleneck in education” – only three Chinese universities made it into U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 colleges worldwide this year – have opened up opportunities for foreign institutions to fill the demand for higher education in China.
With Chinese branch campuses also in the works for New York University, the University of California-Berkeley, Duke University, Kean University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, American colleges have increasingly looked to pen global names for themselves.
“This next decade is going to be a crucial decade for higher education,” Guthrie, a China scholar fluent in Mandarin, said. “The universities that continue along the lines that many have across the country and around the world are going to be left behind.”
Those universities also face a barrage of challenges in shaping their global programs, Philip Altbach, director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, said.
“It can help its reputation by having its brand name overseas and doing something innovative for GW students,” Altbach said. “It can also greatly damage any university’s reputation by screwing it up.”
While New York University’s global network of campuses has become a model for other universities, Altbach said, George Mason University’s inability to attract students for its program in the United Arab Emirates five years ago is a warning sign.
Altbach added that universities have had trouble enticing faculty to teach abroad and finding students who will pay full-price tuition for American universities in their home countries.
“It’s a lot of globetrotting and logistics,” Altbach said. “The lesson to me is that GW needs to do the due diligence.”
Other universities have fallen flat in talks with China’s Ministry of Higher Education because of restrictions on international university partnerships. The regulatory body has been stingy about allowing American universities degree-granting status, Guthrie said, because Chinese officials are wary of universities’ financial motivations.
When the business school launched a partnership last October with Renmin University in China to offer Chinese students a master of finance degree – through one year in Suzhou, China and one year in D.C. – it was part of Guthrie’s plan to reach degree-granting status.
Creating a global GW, a central theme to the University’s upcoming academic strategic plan, hangs in the balance as administrators must still broker complex deals with Chinese municipal governments and the country’s Ministry of Education.
The deal is also contingent on negotiations with officials in the Suzhou Industrial Park, a zoned area of the eastern Chinese city that would help GW earn degree-granting status, Guthrie said. He said he expects the deal to be completed this spring.
The University would partner with a Chinese university – possibly Renmin – Guthrie said, but would maintain control over curriculum and space that would be shared with other universities. He added that the University would hold down startup costs by using shared space in Suzhou instead of building its own campus.
Barratt said GW still has to work on a marketing strategy, finalize a curriculum and hammer out a budget for the tuition-based program. A faculty committee, which has not yet been formed, and top administrators will guide the direction of the program, Guthrie said.
Sophomore and Shanghai native Tianyu Ye, majoring in economics and mathematics, said the University should be conscious of logistical hang-ups when partnering with a Chinese university.
“It is inevitable nowadays to let the American and Chinese understand each other more in every aspect, as we need to be good partners and friends,” Ye said. “My concern is whether the two universities will have good cooperation to give students a comfortable experience.”
Guthrie and Barratt see the program as not only benefitting Chinese students but also setting the stage for an overhaul of the way students experience higher education.
“My goal is that when students graduate from [GW] and they get offered their first job in Belgium, they don’t even blink an eye. They say, ‘When do I start?’ ” Barratt said. “Yeah, you might be far from your mommy and daddy. That’s what it means to be global.”
Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.