University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Would you consider earning a degree from a top-ranked American university at half the cost of studying the US? Consider the case of Duke Kunshan University, which charges 170,000 yuan (US$25,000) for Chinese students for the autumn 2019-20 academic year. Given that living expenses are lower in China than in the US, the estimated total cost of attendance amounts to 231,310 yuan ($33,500). In contrast, tuition and fees at Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina, for autumn 2019-20 is $58,198.

And if you add books, supplies and living expenses, the estimated cost of attendance rises to $78,608. In other words, a Chinese student can earn a US degree while remaining in China and saving about $45,000 per year, or $180,000 over four years of an undergraduate degree. How is this possible?

The rise of ‘hybrid global universities’

In 2003, the Chinese government announced a regulatory framework to allow the creation of joint-venture universities with an overarching goal of improving the quality of the domestic higher-education system by importing best practices from reputed foreign universities. These joint-venture universities established as separate legal entities require extensive collaboration and effective governance between a Chinese university and an international university. There are currently nine such joint-venture universities, with partners from the US, the UK, Israel, Russia and Hong Kong.

I am calling these joint-venture universities in China “hybrid global universities.” By definition, a hybrid variety aims to achieve new desirable characteristics by combining two different crops. The intention is to create something better than the sum of two originating types. Likewise, hybrid global universities intend to create a unique global offering in China by blending the best of two partner universities. Students learn from a pool of global faculty who teach in English and they earn a degree from the foreign university in addition to the degree from the joint-venture university.

Last month, I had a unique opportunity to visit four hybrid global universities – Duke Kunshan University, NYU Shanghai, University of Nottingham Ningbo China, and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University – and interview their institutional leaders about the future of the universities.

Global learning at home for Chinese students

Established in 2004, the University of Nottingham Ningbo China was the first Sino-foreign university in China. It has around 8,000 students. Nick Miles, provost of the university, says that competition for its undergraduate degree programs is intense, and the quality of students is consistently on the rise. On future priorities, Miles said, “We’ve got maturing academic faculties, with excellent programs that are in demand. So in our next phase, we are focusing on building research capacity and growing postgraduate programs.”

University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Founded in 2006, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University is the largest international joint-venture university in China, with nearly 17,000 registered students. Executive president Youmin Xi says his priority is to continue to innovate with future learning models “with a goal of developing an international university in China and a Chinese university recognized internationally. We are living in a globalized, digitalized, connected world, and we want to create an innovative ecosystem that will generate new ideas, deliver research results, and develop strong leaders for the future society and the industry.”

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University China.

NYU Shanghai was founded in 2012 and has 1,300 undergraduate and graduate students. Vice-chancellor Jeffrey S Lehman says a core feature of the university’s learning model is to have a classroom mix where half of undergraduates are always from China, and half from the rest of the world.

That structure enables every Chinese student to have a non-Chinese roommate and vice versa. “So much of the learning happens in the dorm as students come to understand what it means to be effective working with a partner who grew up in a different culture,” Lehman said.

Duke Kunshan is a relatively new university that admitted its first undergraduate class in 2018. Denis Simon, executive vice-chancellor, says it is offering an alternative style of liberal arts in China. “Our business is training global citizens who have global awareness and are willing to take on the difficult problems that the world faces in the 21st century. We want them to have a purposeful life, and we want them to be willing to not just look at the world from the tip of their nose.”

Impact on decisions to study overseas

Collectively, the nine “hybrid global universities” have fewer than 50,000 Chinese students. To put it in perspective, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), more than 928,000 Chinese students were studying overseas in 2017, and of this, nearly 322,000 were in the US and more than 96,000 in the UK. The question is, will the hybrid global universities reduce the demand for studying overseas among Chinese students?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the segment of students who choose to study at these campuses are different from students who are motivated to go overseas. And one of the prime reasons is that Chinese government regulations require that hybrid global universities accept Chinese students through the National College Entrance Examination (Gaokao).

Duke Kunshan University.

While Gaokao is unlike America’s SAT or ACT in many ways, some universities, including the University of Oregon and the University of Cambridge, accept Gaokao for admissions of Chinese students. This means that over time Gaokao can still gain traction among Chinese families planning to send their child overseas to study.

As hybrid global universities mature in terms of quality and visibility, some Chinese families will likely switch from sending their children overseas to keeping them at home, saving significantly in investment, and yet earning a foreign degree. In sum, hybrid global universities are emerging as a unique model of offering global learning opportunities for Chinese students, and it is likely to influence mobility patterns and choices of Chinese students in the medium to long term.

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Rahul Choudaha

Dr Rahul Choudaha is a US-based strategist specializing in trends and insights shaping the future of global higher education. He frequently presents at international conferences and advises universities around the world. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education administration. He blogs and tweets as DrEducation.

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