Why the sino-danish educational collaboration has not become a geopolitical success story.
Joakim Villumsen was thrilled to arrive in China under a clear blue sky, seeing first-hand that his hope of a smog-free Beijing was real. It was summer, late August 2013, and the 25-year-old Danish student was about to start a two-year Master’s program as part of the second ever cohort at the Sino-Danish Centre for Education and Research (SDC) - a university center based in China, where Danish universities and a Chinese university offer a range of different master’s programs.
Along with being far away from family and friends, the issue of pollution had been the reason behind Joakim doubting whether to go to China for his masters in the first place. However, convinced by the career prospects of obtaining a Chinese university degree and a personal interest in Chinese culture, Joakim applied and regarded himself lucky to get one of only 15 places offered at the master’s programme of Nanoscience and Technology at SDC.
As it turned out, luck had nothing to do with it. The programme had not received many applications. Only three Danish students started alongside Joakim, and less than a year after he was back in Copenhagen, still enrolled at SDC but finishing his studies in familiar surroundings. Over winter, the smog had returned to Beijing covering the city like an inescapable veil.
Problems of attracting and retaining Danish students are more the rule than the exception for SDC. Since 2013 each of the seven master’s programs has a total of 30 places to offer, half of which are open for Chinese students and the other half for Danish students. However, of the total of 105 Danish places only 48 were filled in 2013, 57 in 2014 and in 2015 around 60 Danish students are expected to arrive. In comparison, all the Chinese places have been filled each year.
The burden, however, is not distributed evenly. Five of the seven programs offered at SDC are within the natural sciences, and especially these are facing difficulties attracting students. In 2014, no natural science program had more than eight applicants, and the master in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering had as little as two. Why are Danes refusing this opportunity?
The low applicant numbers are surprising taking into account the vast political and commercial backing that SDC enjoys from Denmark. The centre represents the largest investment in education and research ever outside the country’s borders, and it constitutes a central element of Denmark’s strategic partnership with China according to the Danish government’s growth market strategy from 2012. Commercial actors have also shown interest in the project. SDC collaborates with companies in China offering students relevant work experience, and the Danish Industry Foundation has donated 99 million DKK for the construction of a new SDC building in Beijing.
It is against this backdrop that a mismatch between geopolitical efforts enforced by a political elite and the students it wants to attract seems to be taking shape. The international focus of the SDC is not aligned with its intended target group, and natural science students are staying away in droves.
Soft power in action
The story goes like this. It all started in late September 2007, when then Danish Minister of Science, Helge Sander, visited China along with a delegation of 28 members from the Danish business community and universities. An article from Berlingske from that year informs that Sander seemed particularly inspired after hearing from the Chinese Minister of Research that "if the right idea comes along that can help China fight its environmental problems, it does not matter if it comes from a small country or large. Or a small or large university."
"Back then as well as today, China was a nation that everybody wanted to collaborate with, because they invest heavily in education and research," Morten Laugesen explains. He is Deputy Director of SDC, and even though he was not a part of the project back then, he had heard stories about the visit from the Sander delegation in 2007.
Often in high politics, the most important decisions are made after dark in hotel lobbies and restaurants. That night, a discussion arose among the Danish delegates about how Denmark as a small country can make itself more attractive towards China. On the last day of the delegation’s trip, there were indications that an idea had been brought to life on that night. According to Berlingske, Sander announced at a dinner with the Danish expat community in Shanghai his overarching Sino-Danish strategy. His proposal was met with widespread applause echoing into the darkness surrounding the little colony of expatriated Danes.
"We need to take China more seriously both in terms of possibilities and risks. If not, Denmark will not be included in the development that will shape the world in the future," Sander said in his first official statement after returning from his trip, and concluded: "We need to invest systematically in China, and we need to do it fast."
Two years later, a cohort of the eight Danish universities had signed a partnership agreement with the Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (GUCAS, now UCAS), and in 2012 the SDC was ready to welcome its first batch of students.
"Failure is not an option"
For Laugesen, being a political priority works to the advantage of SDC. With a budget of 50 million DKK paid by its Danish partners, the center is not a big player compared to other Danish universities, but it enjoys an immense political attention.
"The gallery of political characters we have welcomed here is exceptional," he says. "Besides the three Danish Prime Ministers, we have been visited by the Danish Queen, several Ministers and Head of Department in the Danish Government, etc. They all come there, because SDC is something special. It is larger than anything else, and for that reason we are very privileged. It is definitely something that has also impressed our students," Laugesen says.
The Deputy Director of the SDC, however, admits that the attention comes with certain expectation to the success of the program:
"We realize that when we find ourselves in negotiations with our Chinese partner, and our standpoint is far from what they will accept as a compromise, we have to be flexible anyway. We know that failure is not an option. It is expected of us to find an acceptable solution for both parties."
Rune Wulff Christensen, international coordinator at the University of Southern Denmark, is harsher in his criticism of the political nature of the project.
"Normally you would consider the purpose of keeping a program alive that attracts this few students, but that possibility does not even come into question here," he explains. As part of his job, Wulff Christensen is responsible for informing students about the SDC master’s program, Omics, which is a natural science study organized by the University of Southern Denmark. Wulff Christensen and his team organize information meetings about SDC and are active on many communication platforms to reach potential candidates.
"Another thing that is not questioned is whether we should continue spending a lot of resources on informing about the project. That decision has been made for us," he says not hiding his lack of confidence in the programs becoming successful. Omics was first offered in 2013, and so far only three and five Danish students have made up its two cohorts.
Still, Wulff Christensen sees the good intentions of the SDC with its intercultural exchange of knowledge and education.
"The problem is that in practice it becomes slightly one-sided. We send out many researchers and lecturers but not really any students. I see the overall purpose of the idea, but I am not sure that it matches its target group," he says.
Danes outside Denmark
When Joakim Villumsen left Beijing to return home, there were several factors behind his decision. He was satisfied with the master’s program as such, but the context in which he was placed was challenging. First of all, it is the smog.
"In the long run, it became too intrusive. It was annoying constantly worrying about if the day would turn out clear or dirty. Would I be able to go for a run outside, or even just for a walk, could I hang clothes to dry without risking it smelling of smog?" Joakim explains. With time he also started to miss Danish cuisine, his family and his friends.
Both Laugesen and Wulff Christensen argue that the SDC’s recruitment problems are partly the result of the particular mixture that the programs are full degrees and placed in China. It can be overwhelming for a young person to make a decision where you say goodbye to your girlfriend, parents and your network to study in China for two years.
Their hypothesis is supported by a 2014 report from Statistics Denmark. In 2013, 63 % of all Danish master’s students studying abroad were either in Europe or North America, and only 12 % were in Asia. The number of Danish students going abroad during their studies has risen steadily since 2007, but China has not seen part of that development. While the number of students finishing a credit bearing stay increased by 16 % between 2011/12 and 2012/13, the number of students going to one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) decreased by 10 % in the same period. In addition, only 6 % of the 9,400 students who went abroad in 2012/13 stayed longer than six months.
According to Laugesen, these factors are in turn reinforced when dealing with natural science students. "There is not the same tradition within the natural sciences to go abroad as for example within the social sciences, where the individual student more often actively pursues an international profile," he says.
For Wulff Christensen, this hits the nail on the head: "Generally natural science students are driven by an academic interest and are less interested in travelling abroad – perhaps they are more conservative by nature."
This, however, is not completely accurate. Numbers from Statistic Denmark indicate that natural science students are not less inclined to study abroad than other students. In 2013, they represented 8 % of all Danish master’s students abroad, and while this is a low number, it actually merely corresponds with the actual proportion of natural science students enrolled in master’s programs in Denmark. However, if you look at Danes studying in Asia, the numbers tell a different story. Here, only 4 % of all Danish students are natural science students, leaving them significantly under-represented. American research from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on intent to study abroad has found that students who find it important to improve their understanding of other countries and cultures are more likely to study abroad. This is hardly surprising, but it could explain why Danish natural science students are more inclined to study in places with familiar cultures and not in Asia, where students from social science and especially humanities are over-represented.
Quid pro quo
An uncomplicated way for SDC to attract more students would seem to simply replace some of the natural science programs with studies in social science or humanities. This is easier said than done.
The problems are linked to the choice of partner. "Many of the major Chinese educational institutions could pick and choose between potential partners, and we needed to come up with a lasting and strong idea that could compete with more famous universities such as Oxford, Princeton and MIT," Morten Laugesen explains. The association of Danish Universities came up with a model that gave the Chinese real influence on both the financial and the educational parts of the programs. The Chinese responded positively to the Danish proposal as it differed from the most common collaboration models in China at that time, which gave no or little say to the Chinese partners.
When the Danish partners had the opportunity to collaborate with UCAS, they were excited, since UCAS is officially part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the largest research institution in the country. CAS was established in the 1950’s as a copy of a similar institution in the USSR, where there was a strong focus on natural sciences. Today CAS is by far the most important research institution in China and continues to have its strength within natural sciences.
"Determining which master’s programs to create was based on the criteria of complementarity, meaning that we needed to take advantage of the core strengths of each of the partners," Laugesen explains. This process resulted in a portfolio of five natural science programs and two social science programs, where the Danish partners had the expertise. "That’s the way it is, when you choose a partner out there. You cannot have it all," Laugesen concludes.
No train to hold
"But the Emperor has nothing on at all," says a little child in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale. However, despite knowing the truth, the Emperor demands the procession to go on making his noblemen hold high his train that is not there at all.
Joakim Villumsen is but one voice suggesting that the Sino-Danish project has run into difficulties. Time will show whether this is a minor bump on an otherwise solid road, or whether another voice may be heard later, stating that the Emperor actually has nothing on in this particular case. Until now, it seems as if the affiliated staff has had no train to hold, and as long failure is not an option the procession must continue.
Kristian Andersen is a Danish journalist currently based in Amsterdam.