The global higher education sector has already seen the ripple effects of China’s ambitious and wide reaching Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

Once termed and colloquially known as the One Belt One Road Initiative, this campaign for Chinese investment around the world has attracted its fair share of supporters and detractors.

Serving as a “21st century silk road,” the initiative consists of a “belt” of overland corridors and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes, connecting countries and regions across the globe and partnering on a dizzying array of infrastructure and construction projects.

Many believe that this initiative will drive growth and development, create new business and trading opportunities, and boost foreign investment.

However, detractors point to the risks related to BRI-related debt, the challenges developing countries face when paying China back, and China’s potential for “debtbook diplomacy,” leveraging debt for political gains.

When it comes to higher education, Chinese institutions are already seeing significant gains from the BRI, and the ripple effects have been felt across the global sector.

BRI & Higher Education

The BRI has boosted the demand for quality higher education on several unique fronts.

With the ever-growing number of infrastructure and construction projects, the demand for skilled graduates in engineering and a wide array of other related disciplines has dramatically increased.

Additionally, the demand for local skilled workers to run BRI projects has resulted in a need for further higher education investment.

China wants to address this gap by retaining domestic students and attracting international students to its higher education institutions.

With a sector that can’t cater to the existing pool of Chinese students, China has focused on:

  • Investing and developing existing universities
  • Building more universities
  • Building partnerships with international governments and universities

This influx of investment due to the BRI has reaped significant rewards for Chinese higher education institutions and influenced international student recruitment across the world.

Investing & Developing Existing Universities

The Chinese government has introduced a number of initiatives over the years to funnel investment into Chinese universities, with the aim of developing their educational offerings and boosting their international competitiveness.

For example, the now defunct Project 211 aimed to strengthen around 100 higher education institutions across China, improving higher education, setting national quality standards, developing staff competencies, investing in scientific research, and streamlining institutional efficiency.

This was replaced by the Double First-Class University Plan in 2017, which aims to improve Chinese universities and significantly grow their presence within global rankings.

This investment has been reflected in the latest QS rankings with China now boasting 19 of the world’s top 200 research universities, rising from 12 in 2016.

To compound this, the Chinese government has also introduced the C9 League, an elite cohort of nine top Chinese universities that aim to rival the traditional Ivy League.

These changes may encourage international students to choose Chinese universities over traditional Western options. Additionally, this may help retain domestic Chinese students who would have usually searched for prestigious study opportunities overseas.

Building More Universities

The BRI has also sparked a flurry of construction of new universities across China.

Previously, Project 985 aimed to construct and establish 39 first-rate universities across the nation. This has also been replaced by the Double First-Class University Plan.

Under this plan, the existing 39 universities from Project 985 are all identified as having the potential to develop as world-class universities. This also includes three universities from Project 211.

With this investment in new universities, China is growing its market share within the higher education sector and encouraging domestic students to study within their own country.

Building Partnerships with International Governments & Universities

The BRI has also encouraged Chinese higher education institutions to forge partnerships with international universities. For example, the UK-China-BRI Countries Education Partnership Initiative was recently announced.

This multilateral education program was designed by the British Council and China’s Ministry of Education and offers seed funding to UK universities to partner with Chinese institutions and BRI countries.

This helps Chinese universities boost their academic reputations, develop world-class universities, and retain and attract students.

This not only impacts the standing of Chinese universities but international student recruitment opportunities and strategies for higher education institutions across the globe.