China Fast-tracks a New Satellite Campus of New York University—But the Price May be Intellectual Freedom

China is changing—or at least trying to. The country and its leaders have launched a number of ambitious campaigns to combat problems like pollution, energy use, and drastic economic inequality, while also hoping to bolster advanced-science industries and make the shift from export-oriented manufacturing to more domestic consumption.

One of China's most dramatic missions, however, is its push to expand higher education. The Chinese government believes that educating its public—rather than just a small, elite group of overseers—will be a key step in solving some of the nation's problems and crucial in creating a more multifaceted labor force like those found in the U.S. and Europe. Over the past decade China has doubled the number of colleges and universities in the country to more than 2,400, and it aims to produce 195 million new college graduates by the year 2020.

This boom has created new problems of its own. Recent Chinese college graduates are suffering from rampant unemployment, too proud to accept often-stigmatized factory jobs but unqualified for much else after attending subpar local institutions.

NYU President John Sexton attends the groundbreaking ceremony for NYU Shanghai's Pudong campus.
NYU President John Sexton attends the groundbreaking ceremony for NYU Shanghai's Pudong campus.

"For now, China's people only care about the high degrees," says Lifu Jin, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Beijing Normal University. "If you are a worker, if you are a technician, people will look down upon you. They don't have a job for now, but they still feel a lot of superiority over the technicians, even though the technicians really make a good deal of money."

This is the educational landscape, and social structure, that New York University will find itself in this fall, when it opens its new degree-granting campus in the Pudong district of Shanghai. As the Voice's Nick Pinto reported in February, this is but one part of the ambitious expansion plans put forth by university President John Sexton. The new campus will, according to NYU, offer a comprehensive four-year liberal arts education to roughly 1,500 of China's brightest students, as well as an equal number of students from other countries (the vast majority from the U.S.).

Among the many overseas locations in Sexton's planned $3 billion Global Network University campaign—a controversial effort that recently earned Sexton a no-confidence vote from NYU faculty, with as-yet unclear ramifications for the university's future—NYU Shanghai is particularly uncharted territory. The decision to build a degree-granting satellite campus in the United States' greatest economic rival, at a time of rising tuition costs back home and a foundering job market for recent American college graduates, has many NYU students and professors wondering who exactly NYU Shanghai is supposed to benefit.

Is the university sacrificing the needs of students and recent graduates in the U.S. for a new and lucrative market abroad? Can a true liberal arts education even exist under China's authoritarian government?

NYU is "bringing altruistic liberal arts education to the Chinese as far as they're concerned," says Rebecca Karl, an East Asian Studies professor at the university for the past 16 years. "In a more critical vein, yes, this is outsourcing, this is branding, this has nothing to do with actual educational goals. It has to do with spreading the institutional religion—NYU's institutional religion—to China."

From a university's perspective, the possible rewards for expanding into China are substantial, and the risks minimal. A new campus promises new revenue streams, easier access to fresh talent, and a greater presence in one of the world's most powerful economies.

In NYU's case, the local government is even donating the land and fronting the cash needed to build its facilities. Tuition at NYU Shanghai will be comparable to NYU in New York (one of the least affordable schools in the U.S.), and the city of Shanghai is also expected to supply scholarships for at-need Chinese and international students, according to an NYU spokesperson.

Western-style higher education, it seems, is a very valuable commodity in Shanghai, and one the Chinese are willing to go to great lengths to import for the right school.

"The Chinese education system is a disaster for the economy and for the country, and they need to reform it," says Shaun Rein, author of The End of Cheap China and founder of the China Market Research Group (CMR). And though NYU Shanghai will do little to save a broken system, it's hoped that a degree from an American university will carry more weight than one from all but a few top Chinese institutions.

More highly respected degrees could be one solution for a nation increasingly overrun with graduates armed with useless diplomas. China is pouring $250 billion a year into what economists call "human capital," but the country lacks the office positions to absorb 8 million new ambitious college grads each year.

"In my hometown, it's a very critical thing," says Jin, who is originally from Chengdu, Sichuan. "There will be 80,000 people competing and struggling for 2,000 jobs, which means only one out of 40 will get a job, so it's very serious right now."

Though Jin now works as a public relations manager at a hostel in Shanghai, he says many of his friends are still unemployed, refusing to take high-paying factory jobs that they view as "shameful."

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