10 reasons to vote against the current plans on Yantai
Last Thursday, the 24th of August 2017, we made an announcement together with the Personnel Faction concerning our opinion about the University’s plans for a branch campus in Yantai, China. Together we announced that we will vote against the proposal for University of Groningen Yantai (UGY) when the document is presented for approval to the University Council next week.
This was not the first time that we expressed our concerns regarding this plan. Already in February, we explained these concerns to the board of the University and made clear that the plans for the branch campus do not convince us. We hoped that this, together with the acquired right of consent for the University Council and the faculty councils, would be an incentive for the Board of the University to improve the plans for UGY.
Over the past months, the plans did not improve substantially and our concerns were not addressed. We had no other choice but stating our opinion publicly in the committee meetings which serve as a preliminary meeting for the University Council. We consider it important to also explain the reasons behind this decision and we therefore list all of our considerations below.
- There is no clear plan for the future. Considering the large scale of the campus (10.000 students) it is necessary that, next to the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) and the Faculty of Spatial Sciences (FSS), also other faculties will offer degree programs in Yantai. We repeatedly requested an overview of potential degree programs to be offered in Yantai so that we could assess the future plans and their feasibility. Since December, we were promised to receive this document several times, but so far we have not received anything. Due to this complete lack of information it is impossible for us to assess the feasibility of UGY in the future. Therefore, we conclude that the University either does not have an elaborate plan for the future of UGY or does not share the relevant information with us.
- Recruitment of sufficient qualified staff is an (excessive) risk. The recruitment of sufficient qualified staff for offering degree programs at UGY is classified as a high risk in the business case and likely would cause problems. Also for the University of Groningen (UG) it is difficult to recruit enough qualified staff. Additionally, the training of UGY personnel and the maintaining the equality of degree programs in both locations would increase the workload of staff here in Groningen. Therefore, the quality of degree programs in both Groningen and Yantai cannot be ensured.
- Academic freedom is not a realistic constraint. The Board of the University considers complete academic freedom a strict constraint. Past events have proven that China is a country in which academic freedom cannot always be guaranteed. If the UG wants to open a branch campus in China, it is necessary to realize that rules regarding academic freedom and the extent to which one can enjoy academic freedom will be different. Additionally, the case of the withdrawal of 315 possibly controversial academic papers by the Cambridge University Press in the China Quarterly illustrates the uncertainty of academic freedom for UGY.
- We were never presented with a financial planning for UGY. Even though the AMvB does not require a budget estimation (because UGY will be an independent university), it would be important for us to see a financial plan in order to properly assess the feasibility of the plan. UGY is supposed to be financially independent in the near future. However, it is uncertain how and from where financial resources will be obtained when the Chinese government is not liable for the incurred costs anymore after 3 years. In the business case, UGY will cover its costs by rapidly increasing the number of offered degree programs, but a detailed future plan is lacking.
- The proposal is lacking a clear exit strategy. The AMvB requires a clear exit strategy for the case that UGY would have to stop all its activities in order to prevent any harm to the UG. This strategy needs to cover the financial situation, the student, and the personnel. The UG guarantees UGY employees with a UG contract, that they can work for the UG again. Additionally, students that already started following a degree program at UGY are guaranteed the possibility to continue their studies at the UG. The exit strategy, however, lacks financial and practical implications of these promises.
- The advantages for the quality of education are not convincing. The minister asked for a more elaborate explanation of the assumed benefits that UGY would have for the quality of education at the UG. Last month, the advantages were added to the proposal and direct effects of offering degree programs at UGY on the quality of education in Groningen were stated: pilots for new educational strategies could be done in Yantai, international cooperation would lead to innovations, and exchange possibilities for students would be extended. The experiences from other branch campuses show that these goals are likely to be too ambitious. Additionally, it is not proven that a branch campus can even obtain these goals and alternatives have not even been researched. The advantages are therefore hardly convincing while the quality of education at our university is our top priority.
- A large-scaled branch campus in Yantai cannot be the single solution for decreasing numbers of students in Groningen. The UG expects that the its number of Dutch students will decrease in the future. According to the Board of the University, UGY is the solution to this problem because a better international reputation and more exchange opportunities would then outweigh the effects by an increase of international students at the UG. Also according to minister Bussemaker, decreasing numbers of students by itself can never be a reason to engage in transnational education. Additionally, it is uncertain if UGY will indeed increase that number of UG students as the effects described are highly indirect. Alternative, and potentially less risky measures to fight decreasing numbers of students have not been researched sufficiently.
- The expected effects on international rankings are not evidence based. In the proposal higher position in international rankings are stated as a reason to open a branch campus. The branch campus Yantai is assumed to increase the placement in international rankings and will in turn attract better researchers and more international students to come to Groningen and Yantai. Yet at the same time, the proposal also acknowledges that there is no evidence for a positive impact of branch campuses on international rankings.
University-wide support for the project
We have always found it of great importance that such an enormous project is widely supported by the academic community. That is why in February, together with the Personnel Faction, we ensured that faculty councils have the right of consent on the faculty’s participation in the project. At the moment, only the faculties of Spatial Sciences (FSS) and Science and Engineering (FSE) are involved with the plans. This summer, both faculty councils voted in favor of their faculty’s participation in offering the first programs in Yantai.
To us, the consent of the faculty councils is a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient. The question to faculty councils was confined to: given that the branch campus is set up, could our faculty provide these given programs in Yantai? The question whether or not the branch campus would be beneficial to our University, and whether the University should continue the project, has been deliberately kept from the faculty councils. For these questions, the faculty boards consistently referred to the University Council, which is concerned with strategic, university-wide policies.
In our consideration, we find it important to not only take into account the consent of the FSS and FSE. The opinions of the other faculty councils are also important to us, as other faculties would also have to be involved in the project in the near future. Our concerns are shared by various faculty councils. They too question the necessity of the branch campus and foresee considerable risks, related to for example academic freedom and the recruitment of sufficient qualified staff.
For us, the risks of this project outweigh the assumed benefits and therefore we cannot agree to the plan. Our belief that this is the right choice, is strengthened by the fact that the councils were never really involved in the plan making process. We would have liked to be involved from the beginning with the development of a widely-supported plan. Instead, the interaction with the councils has been treated as a game of chess, in which an opponent needs to be beaten. During the past two years, we have repeatedly been pressured to support the plans, while it is actually our task to monitor the board’s policies.
Two years ago, Lijst Calimero was one of the parties that voted in favor of the strategic choice to explore the possibilities of a branch campus in Yantai. After two years, the risks of the project turn out to be too large and the assumed benefits not convincing. The project simply has too many risks concerning the quality of education and the reputation of our University, and these risks are not outweighed by considerable benefits. We fear that the value of our students’ diplomas is at stake and that is why we vote against the plans for this branch campus.
What does this imply for the future?
Lijst Calimero is not principally against the establishment of branch campuses. We are also not against a branch campus in China, or even in Yantai. However, the current plans for the project do not convince us and just a rephrased version of the document would not change that. That is both because the assumed benefits are not likely to improve, and said risks are difficult to mitigate. It is up to the Board of the University to decide whether or not they continue the development of this project. We, however, think it would be best if the University would turn its attention back to its main task: providing high quality education and enabling outstanding research in Groningen.