Can Silk Road HE partnerships fill ‘vacuum’ left by the US?

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The vast transformation happening around the world will have an impact towards higher education partnerships in Europe and China, with China’s extensive New Silk Road initiative playing a role that could even witness China rising as a global higher education leader, according to the recent international academic experts meeting in Oxford.

While the global picture is still making headway, China’s leadership and financing of its New Silk Road or One Belt One Road (OBOR) project is already transforming economic and trade relations in Asia and Africa, and could also change the direction of global collaboration and competition in higher education, according to a seminar held by the Netherlands’ Utrecht University Centre of Global Challenges.

OBOR links China to Europe in the North – the Belt – and the Maritime Silk Road between Asia and East Africa in the South through vast infrastructure, trade, energy and communications projects. However, foreseeing China’s ‘soft power’ through higher education and people-to-people exchanges is also a critical factor.

The alleged “post-American” world has resulted in growing implications for Europe’s relationship in higher education with China. As the United States gradually takes a step back from the world, it has changed the framework of opportunities. The New Silk Road initiative implemented in 2013 has been recognised for having “game-changing” potential, with China’s financial support between US$150 billion to US$1 trillion. With the present participation of 65 countries, the New Silk Road project is revolutionary.

The shift has also instilled China with the confidence and a framework to extend to the rest of the world that was previously not within its sphere of influence such as the African continent.

At present China’s concern is the continuous US-China trade war, which is also focusing on Chinese technology expansion by restraining research collaboration by US universities in sensitive fields, could weaken scholarly exchanges and partnership between the two countries.

This can influence China’s science and technology objectives as it aims to shift from a manufacturing-led to a high-tech innovation-led economy. However, at the same time, China will attempt to adapt and source for means to  reinforce university partnerships through other avenues; and the shift is apparent. China’s policies attempt to establish relationships beyond the normal US world as opposed to reinforcing with the United States. Concurrently, the US has toughened rules on some graduate students and scholars from China, heightened vetting for research in some sensitive areas, and decreased the length of visas for researchers and scholars in some scientific disciplines.

At present, China has the second-largest research and development budget globally after the US and second-largest pool of researchers globally after the EU, and has surpassed US in the number of articles in the sciences. Therefore, it has been acknowledged by the EU as a potential competitor. Despite that, it has been pointed out that China still has quality issues with its higher education sector that can be in the way of its leadership position in higher education. Countries that could succeed the US in terms of outstanding science and research partnership are outside the OBOB framework – and include Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Even though Chinese universities have stepped up in terms of international rankings there is still much to be done to enhance the quality of its higher education.

In spite of China’s progress, it will be difficult to displace the current leaders, internationally and regionally in higher education partnership. The New Silk Road is expected to have a significant influence on academic mobility, especially student mobility; as China starts to garner the interest of many foreign students.

In addition, Isak Froumin, professor and head of the Institute of Education at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, shared that despite large OBOR investment in Central Asia, China nevertheless displayed little interest in establishing higher education in the Central Asia region or creating a qualified workforce even for their Chinese organisations’ projects. Even though the number of students from Central Asian countries studying in China has increased, Russia still remains the top country of choice for most of the students.

While many pointed out that soft power effects will naturally occur as OBOR projects are completed with apparent economic and geopolitical benefits. OBOR is experiencing some setbacks with countries such as Sri Lanka and Malaysia reducing or cancelling costly debt-ridden infrastructure projects backed by China, after a shift in government in these countries.

However, there is still a possibility that China’s attempted objective may not persist as the US establish a new agency with US$60 billion to invest in foreign development termed as BUILD – Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development.

Source: University World News 

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