Academic joint venture sets the pace for Chinese higher education

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Much more than a branch campus, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University is a unique and cooperative creation of universities and industry, bringing new approaches to learning, and to academic management and culture. Martin Ince finds out more from Professors Youmin Xi and Gavin Brown.

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) exists because of a unique alignment of educational and political forces. It was set up by two like-minded research universities, Xi’an Jiaotong and Liverpool, with the vital backing of the Chinese city of Suzhou, Jiangsu. For the city, it provides people and knowledge for industrial innovation. For the universities, it brings a new and more western approach to higher education to China.

Professor Youmin Xi, executive president of XJTLU, points out that it is only 12 years since the university’s first intake of 163 students; 15,000 are now registered including over 1,000 from more than 60 overseas countries. There are nearly 1,200 master’s and PhD students, and over 90 study programs.

He says: “The university was set up because although Suzhou is close to Shanghai, and has an international business park, there was no strong science and technology university. So we began by building up strength in science, technology and management.  Now we have some subjects that are not specialisms for either Liverpool or Xi’an Jiaotong, including film and TV, which is an important area because Chinese people now have more leisure time, and China is becoming an ageing society.”

Xi is keen to stress that XJTLU is not “a teaching centre, or a branch campus of Xi’an Jiaotong or Liverpool,” but is an independent entity. In particular, it has always hired its own faculty. He explains: “China is a huge market and a place of opportunity for scholars, so recruitment has not usually been a problem, although it is always difficult to hire the top professors in a specialist field. We now have nearly 1,000 academic staff, recruited internationally, and about 70 per cent are foreign nationals.” Diversity of faculty and of the student body are both important, and Xi stresses that the university’s overseas students are from right around the world – “not just from Asia.” He says: “About 10 per cent of the current student body is international, and we plan on raising that to 20 to 30 per cent. We also plan on a similar percentage of our students being postgrads, and we will reach this target in three to four years.”

Despite XJTLU’s unique structure, it remains part of the Chinese education system, and is far from being a ‘soft’ study option. Its Chinese students all have high Gaokao grades, and they are paying fees similar to those paid by UK home students in Liverpool. Other local universities are a cheaper option, attract more government subsidies, and have lower entry requirements.

Once there, students are exposed to a notion of education that might come as a surprise. Xi says: “Chinese education is often based on knowledge and memorisation. We have adopted a different philosophy. We tell parents and students that this is not a place to get knowledge. Instead it is a place that helps students to grow up through a learning process for knowledge.” Informal learning is highly valued at XJTLU, whereas most Chinese education is markedly formal in style. According to Xi, the career success of XJTLU alumni reflects the positive outcomes of this approach. “International universities and firms especially like our graduates, and find them very positive, responsible and competitive.”

He points out that although XJTLU is a research university, it has not got caught up in the Chinese public universities’ enthusiasm for research publications. “Chinese universities pay less attention to undergraduate education, because they are keen to get research funding and to have papers in the top journals,” he suggests. “The government’s mechanism for evaluation and resource allocation pushes this priority, but we are keen on a model that emphasises our educational role. That includes helping students to learn and also to grow up.” Faculty are expected to give 40 per cent of their time to research and another 40 to teaching, with the remainder set aside for administration and other tasks.

Local links

A key aspect of the XJTLU experience is its connection to the economy of Suzhou and the wider Shanghai area. Xi, himself a professor of management, says: “We are involved in developing new ways to support knowledge-based organisations, including universities, for instance to create a networked organisational structure to improve the efficiency of knowledge workers and institutions. At the same time we are working on a new relationship between universities and society, including the use of university intellectual networks to stimulate new forms of knowledge generation and social innovation.” Many universities run events that aim to involve the local community, but at XJTLU, a high percentage are also organised and directed by external participants. Local industry puts money into the university, but also offers practical support, including assistance in dealing with Chinese officialdom.  And many of the university’s research centres and institutes, in every field from urban design to maths, have local financial backers alongside international and other national ones.

Xi also points to the importance of the XJTLU initiative for the rest of the Chinese education system. Several thousand academics and university leaders, from hundreds of institutions, have undertaken higher education leadership training there, demonstrating the university’s contribution to Chinese society as a whole. “Chinese education has remained traditional despite technological disruption, and it is a big challenge to alter the expectations of students and their parents,” he asserts. Like his Liverpool colleague Gavin Brown, Xi sees no reason why the XJTLU model should not work in another location. But he points out that it is still very new, in both theory and practice. And it contains at least three different layers of novelty. “The technical and managerial levels are relatively easy,” he claims. “It is at the institutional level that creating a new structure is more complicated.”

Indeed, the university is about to find out whether it is possible to clone its innovative model. It is setting up a new campus near its existing site to test out innovative concepts of ‘Syntegrative Education’ with a specific remit to produce people for future new industries. Xi explains: “It is crucial to develop new educational models, because the old classroom approach has been unchanged for centuries. Our aim is to produce leaders for new industries including AI and robotics, as well as showing what the future campus will be like.” The new campus is at an advanced design stage and will open in 2021.

And while Xi is proud of the potential contribution the campus will make to the Suzhou region and future higher education around the world, he explains that it is also needed to bring extra quota students through Government approval procedure. “We are part of the admission quota system for Chinese institutions, and cannot admit all the applicants we wish to.” The new campus will allow XJTLU to bring in yet more students.

Professor Gavin Brown, pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Liverpool, stresses one big point about what XJTLU is not. Like his colleague Youmin Xi, he is keen to dispel the idea that it is a branch campus. Instead it is a joint venture between his university and Xi’an Jiaotong University, with its own academics, courses, students, managers, plans and budgets. It is the biggest such university in China and its structure sets it apart from other western-oriented universities there.

“The XJTLU experience is intended to blend the best aspects of Chinese and western education,” he says. “The teaching style is less didactic, uses the textbook less and is more research-informed. We never say that it is better than the Chinese system, but it is very different. As result, XJTLU attracts students who want a more open learning style than is usual in China.”

This unusual approach, says Brown, is reinforced by the XJTLU faculty. They have been recruited on an international basis from day one, and “bring a lot of pedagogical richness.” Many appreciate the dynamism of an institution that is still only 12 years old.

He also highlights the unique flavour of the XJTLU student body. “Our students are among the top performers in the Gaokao [the Chinese schoolleaver exam], and 83 per cent of them go on to study for a master’s or a PhD. They usually do this at a world top-100 university, and they value the XJTLU undergraduate experience as preparation for a top postgraduate experience.”Many XJTLU alumni go on to great careers in finance, IT and other areas of business, and already form a valuable network in and beyond China.

XJTLU’s independence, says Brown, also extends to research. In applied research and engineering, for example, Liverpool and XJTLU have overlapping expertise and work together. “Understandably, we are less strong than they are in Chinese studies, and here we do far less joint work.” In the same way, Liverpool has strengths in the life sciences, but these are not as yet well-developed at XJTLU, while there is interest from the Suzhou authorities in translational research in areas such as heritage, architecture and English.

The obvious question to Brown is: would Liverpool do it again? His answer: “Yes, absolutely! The model of partnership with a local university, in a location where the need for a new institution is accepted politically, is a solid one.” The University of Liverpool has explored other possible venues, but will only get involved if all the other indicators are favourable.

Professor Youmin Xi is a board member and executive president of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University and pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. He gained his undergraduate degree in physics from Xi’an Science and Technology University and his master’s in system engineering from Xi’an Jiaotong University. In 1987 he was the first in mainland China to be awarded a doctoral degree in management engineering. He sits on a variety of nationallevel boards and holds a wide range of titles, including standing committee member of Xi’an Municipal People’s Congress.

Professor Gavin Brown joined the University of Liverpool in June 2015 as pro-vice-chancellor for education. He supports the vice-chancellor in setting the academic direction of the University, provides strategic leadership and champions the enhancement of learning and teaching throughout the academic and student community. He has a first degree in chemistry and a PhD in connective tissue biochemistry.