UK Uni Breaks New Ground

Ambitious Chinese educators draw a world-class institution to improve higher learning in China


After 14 months of negotiation, the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China (UNNC) laid its foundation on April 15, 2004. The school will be a branch of the UK’s University of Nottingham set up in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, and will admit its first students in September.

HIGHER GROUND Xu Yafen, mastermind behind bringing a foreign university to China, talks about the establishment of the UNNC

The UNNC is the first joint-venture university to obtain legal qualification and an independent campus in China. Although there are already over 700 foreign-affiliated colleges and universities in the country, all have cooperative curriculums and none of them is qualified to run independently.

The campus of the UNNC, located in Ningbo, a southeast port city in Zhejiang Province, is nearly 59 hectares in size. Zhejiang Wanli University and University of Nottingham are jointly establishing the school. The budget for the construction is 600 million yuan ($72.5 million). The university is only about three hours’ drive from Shanghai, the country’s economic heart and major cultural vein.

The University of Nottingham, located in England’s East Midlands, has ranked as high as 56th on lists of top universities in the world and is a member of the U21, an association of premier research universities. The university can boast the fact that it has produced several Nobel Prize winners. Its current chancellor is actually a distinguished Chinese nuclear physicist Yang Fujia.

Professor Yang also serves on a decision-making body called the Council of the UNNC. Ian Gow, the school’s vice president, serves as Executive President of the UNNC. Xu Yafen, Board Chairwoman of Zhejiang Wanli Education Group and founder of Zhejiang Wanli University, is the Chairwoman of the Council of the UNNC.

China’s institutions of higher learning are underdeveloped by world standards. None of China’s hundreds of colleges and universities are among the top 300 schools in the world. Consequently, tens of thousands of bright young people leave China to get degrees in other countries. This migration of sorts, referred to as “brain drain,” has prompted both the government and educators to act.

Zhou Ji, the Minister of Education, expressed his hope that the UNNC could bring its internationally recognized standards here and provide an example for Nottingham’s Chinese counterparts.

China is apparently testing the waters of international higher education. “This is a trail run. We will wait and see the results. If it succeeds, we will popularize its mode in the country,” Zhou concluded.

Chinese Nottingham

“Education quality will be the lifeline of the UNNC, we must introduce international standards,” Yang stressed, referring to the high education quality guarantee framework, which was issued in the UK in 1999 .

According to the UNNC’s development and management plan, all subjects will be taught in English, while the University of Nottingham will provide teaching material. Both the credit hours system and criteria of its teaching staff are in accordance with the requirement of the University of Nottingham, so students graduating from the Ningbo campus will receive the same diplomas as their UK peers.

The staff will consist of three groups. One from the Nottingham faculty, the second Chinese and the rest will be selected from applications from around the world. All teachers are required to have a doctorate degree from a world-class university, while at least 21 percent of them are to have education or management experience in the United Kingdom. The Chinese administrators must speak fluent English, have studied in the West and have a degree on par with UK and world standards.

A total English-speaking environment is envisioned. The UNNC requires all students speak only English during study and in daily and social life. In addition, the UNNC also will set up “English cafes,” screen original English movies and organize English cultural “salons” to improve the students’ language proficiency.

Anticipating inadequate freshmen English language levels, the UNNC has decided to introduce a four year bachelor’s degree program, as is used in other Chinese colleges and universities. Junior year, students can attend a two-month communication course either in the university’s main Nottingham campus or at the other two branches in Singapore or Malaysia at their discretion.

Sir Colin Campbell, Executive President of the University of Nottingham, pointed out that the UNNC’s campus would be very similar to its UK parent school.

Xu Yafen told Beijing Review that the UNNC would assume some “Chinese characteristics,” such as having compulsory subjects related to Chinese culture, which is in accordance with China’s Ministry of Education (MOE). Xu noted, “The British side quite agrees with us on this point. Our foreign students will also take courses on Chinese culture. We hope the UNNC becomes the center for European students studying Asian cultures.”


The UNNC will mainly engage in arts and social sciences initially. Its first class of 300 students will be chosen from a crop successful college entrance examinees from around the country. Classes are scheduled to commence this September. Master’s programs will be available by 2005. The mark for the student body is 4,000 by 2008, including 1,000 postgraduates.

Campbell explained that the reason Ningbo was chosen is because of Zhejiang Wanli University’s principle that 100 percent of tuition is reinvested in education. He stressed that Nottingham will not absorb UNNC’s revenue, but will invest in the Ningbo school. “We hope the establishment of the UNNC campus will set up a good example for other universities in the world,” said Campbell.

Campbell has worked on Chinese studies for a long time. Indeed, the establishment of the UNNC will surely provide access to the subject of his work. Educational cooperation between China and the UK is hoped to strengthen economic and cultural links between the two countries and the regions in which the universities are established.

A bachelor’s degree from the UNNC will cost 50,000 yuan ($6,040), much less than tuition back in Nottingham, which is about $36,000. However, the figure is still three times as high as other Chinese colleges and universities.

Where does this money go? Xu told Beijing Review that UNNC spends 100,000 yuan ($12,080) on every student, twice the tuition. So the 50,000 yuan not covered in tuition must be made up from other sources. The university gets about 600 million yuan ($73 million) as its investment. The Zhejiang Provincial Government has invested 50 million yuan ($6.04 million) and the Ningbo City Government put in 100 million ($12.08 million). The rest of the money is coming from Zhejiang Wanli University.

Xu said that the UNNC’s principle of not-for-profit was a big reason the Chinese Government has supported the university.

“The British side will be in charge of revenue and expenditure, while both sides will contribute capital to larger projects. No matter what, each side is expected to consider the other’s perspective. This is the base of our cooperation,” Xu said.

A Determined Education Reformer

Eleven years ago, Xu Yafen, a kind and gracious lady, made a daring decision. She decided to reopen a moribund school for public employees and to make it different from other public schools by encouraging a competitive system. She collected fees and administered it herself.

“It was a risky experiment. If I failed, I would be responsible for all the losses. If I succeeded, I would devote this new mode of education and its revenue to the country,” Xu said.

She succeeded. Her tenacity paid off, establishing quite a reputation in national education circles. Today, Xu is Board Chairperson of an education group that owns nine schools. There were only two teachers and 36 students in her first school. Her nine schools now employ over 1,500 teachers and enroll 20,000 students. Zhejiang Wanli University, which she established, has been appointed to be the university carrying out China’s MOE trial education reform.

Xu continues to dream. Among this ambitious woman’s goals is establishing a “Harvard of the East.” “Every time I talk about this, people regard it as a joke,” Xu smiled. “ I know it will be very difficult, but I will try my best. If 100 years is not enough, 300 or 400 years could be. I believe that as long as one works hard at everything, one can turn possibility into reality, just as many people thought it was impossible for me to do.”

In recent years, Xu reckoned that introducing world famous universities into China might save a lot of time and energy to fulfill her task.

Xu sensed her opportunity in early 2003. That year, the city of Ningbo first permitted foreign resources to go into education.

After researching the top 200 universities in the world, Xu found that the University of Nottingham was her only option. Its chancellor, a physics professor named Yang Fujia, was an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and former president of Shanghai’s Fudan University. According to MOE regulation, heads of Sino-foreign joint venture universities must be Chinese. Besides, Chancellor Yang was very interested in Xu’s plan.

On October 2, 2003, Xu signed an agreement with Colin Campbell in the UK. The formal contract was signed in Shanghai on March 13, 2004. Ten days later, the Ministry of Education officially approved the establishment of the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China.

“When I heard the news, I felt much closer to my dream,” Xu recalled.

Xu expressed her deep wish that Chinese higher education will improve. “My son is studying abroad now. Through talks with him on education between China and foreign countries, I find there is a lot of room to improve China’s higher education,” Xu said, “I hope the UNNC can help realize this goal.”