Sheer Ambition: How the connectivity of China’s Belt and Road Initiative will change international higher education
Marguerite J. Dennis
In his book, China Versus The West The Global Power Shift of the 21st Century, the economist Ivan Tselichtchev presents a comprehensive picture of the changing balance of power between China and the economies of the West.
Statesmanship and vision are the hallmarks of the current Chinese government and leadership. The country has ambitious goals. Perhaps the most ambitious goal is the Belt and Road Initiative.
Often referred to as the Project of the Century, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has the potential to impact a substantial portion of the world’s infrastructure, transportation and finance, and unravel the geopolitical order in place since World War II. Because of the connectivity of Belt and Road projects, the potential to unravel international higher education and current international student mobility cannot be underestimated.
Announced in 2013 as a global trade strategy, based on China’s ancient Silk Road’s trading routes, Belt and Road initiatives are estimated to cost more than one trillion dollars and include 68 countries south and west of China, creating a network of connected railways, ports, tunnels and other infrastructure projects and plugging China into economic hubs across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. When complete, Belt and Road projects will connect approximately 65 percent of the world’s population. A recent World Bank study concluded that the transportation projects alone could lift global GDP by 3 percent.
No one can predict with certainty where commerce ends and international higher education collaboration and research begins. But the magnitude and integration of the initiatives will inevitably strengthen Chinese economic, political, and maritime power throughout the world, and by extension, Chinese higher education dominance.
What likely impact will China’s Belt and Road Initiative have on international higher education? The Chinese Ministry of Education has its own Belt and Road Initiative plan to develop joint education, training and research programs throughout the countries in the Belt and Road Initiative. The Belt and Road Initiative Education Action Plan, released in 2016 by the Chinese Ministry of Higher Education, outlines China’s determination to play an influential role in the future in shaping higher education worldwide. Romi Jain, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan, wrote: “China is determined to play an influential role in shaping future educational architecture. Chinese education Belt and Road proposals are based on a three pronged framework of ground-laying, support-building, and forward-thinking actions.”
There are many examples of China’s progress in meeting its stated strategic educational goals, including:
Nearly 500,000 overseas students studied in China last year and 65 percent of the students came from countries in the Belt and Road Initiative.
In 2015, Jiaotong University launched the University Alliance of the Silk Road, to create a platform for educational cooperation. According to Liu Xn, writing in the Global Times, the Alliance has, so far, 151 member universities from 38 countries.
In 2017, China founded the Asian Universities Alliance with the goal of promoting student and faculty mobility within Asia and promoting collaborative research. Fifteen universities joined this Alliance.
In 2018, Xi’an Jiaotong University enrolled 2,804 overseas students from 136 countries and regions. Seventy percent of the students are from Belt and Road countries.
Chang’an University, one of China’s best schools for road, bridge, and automobile engineering, has increased the number of overseas students from 409 in 2013 to 1,600 in 2019. Lu Weidong, director of the International Student Affairs office at the university, wrote the following: “Many large construction engineering companies that are participating in Belt and Road construction projects came to us for cooperation. Cultivating local student talent is our responsibility.”
China doles out thousands of scholarships to attract international students. There are more than 50,000 African students studying in China and in 2018, more than 1,000 Pakistanis students received scholarships to study in China.
The Chinese Academy of Science has created centers for research and collaboration with researchers in colleges and universities in South America, Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
While Europe wrestles with political infighting, Britain wrestles with Brexit and the United States wrestles with protectionism, China is marching ahead with clear objectives and strategic plans to connect the world politically, economically, technologically, and educationally.
The country’s economic, political and technological goals, as well as its educational objectives, are driven by sheer ambition.
International higher education as well as international student mobility are in flux. The headwinds of change are evident in almost every current international statistic and report. The international higher education landscape, in my opinion, will not resemble tomorrow what it is today.
The dark alchemy of change and disruption make this inevitable.