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.

“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.”

China has long sent more young people to the U.S. to study than any other country, but not every family can afford to send a child abroad, and not every student wants to be so far from home. The prospect of elite American universities offering a premium product right in their backyard is an attractive one.

“The thought is we don’t need to go abroad,” says Jin. “We can just spend less money and get what we want here.”

Professor Karl, however, is not convinced that the school will find enough students who can pay the tuition but don’t want to study in the U.S. She worries that NYU’s expansion into China will only worsen the country’s economic and social divide. While NYU Shanghai may be more affordable and convenient for some Chinese families than NYU in New York, the student body could ultimately end up looking all too familiar—made up of affluent students with high test scores out of high school.

“The NYU Shanghai degree will be a far more valuable degree to have than some two-year technical unaccredited local school,” Karl says. “However, of course, they are not attracting the same populations.

“As an educator, I don’t believe it’s harmful to educate people. Does it contribute ever more exponentially to the educational and class inequality in China and in the world? Yes, absolutely it does.”

The leaders of NYU Shanghai, for their part, insist that concerns like Karl’s are overblown. “My experience in China is so far so good,” says Jeffrey Lehman, vice chancellor and chief executive of NYU Shanghai, who also served as president of Cornell University from 2003 to 2005 and was the founding dean of the Peking University of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, the first law school to offer a Western-style curriculum in China. (Li Keqiang, China’s newly appointed prime minister, was educated there.)

“So far, it’s been absolutely possible to do what we at NYU Shanghai intend to do,” insists Lehman. “If that turns out not to be the case and we cannot operate the university there, then we leave. But my expectation is that we will be able to do exactly what we want to do.”

What NYU intends to accomplish in China—and what Lehman says the university and the city of Shanghai explicitly agreed upon before moving forward with their plans—is to be able to offer classes where freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and creativity can abound without fear of government censorship. Lehman himself will teach a mandatory first-year course on “global intellectual history” that includes elements of humanities and social sciences.

Even so, it’s hard to imagine that a graduate of NYU in China—a country where the Internet is closely monitored, books are banned, and discussing topics such as democracy and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre can still land a person in jail—will reap the same educational benefits as a graduate of NYU in New York City.

“I think the government is probably going to get much more involved with what the curriculum is, and that brings up issues of freedom of speech and academic discourse,” says Rein, whose own book has been banned in mainland China. “What happens when you start talking about philosophy and political theory? That’s something that I don’t know.”

The concern is that the Chinese government might issue curriculum restrictions, dictating what can and cannot be discussed in politics, humanities, and social science-based courses. According to Rein, offering a program like science management is a safer bet for American universities in China because it’s a field that the Chinese government greatly approves of.

Through CMR, Rein has done consulting for Duke University and New York’s Juilliard School, two institutions that have recently set in motion their own China expansion plans. Unlike NYU Shanghai, neither Duke’s new campus in the city of Kunshan nor Juilliard’s planned facility in Yujiapu, Tianjin, will grant undergraduate degrees to Chinese students. Rather, the focus will be on graduate programs and pre-college instruction, respectively. Rein advises his clients against trying to duplicate degrees offered in their home nations for fear of diluting the schools’ brands. It seems nearly impossible for an American institution to be able to provide an identical liberal arts education in a political system so very different from our own.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘Is an NYU Shanghai degree as valuable as a New York one?'” he says. “So I think they’re walking a very dangerous line.”

Still, predicts Rein, “in the short term it’s going to be a boon for the universities from an economic standpoint. But I think it also means that America has to adjust, because we’re going to see far more competitive workers coming out of China than ever before.”

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., agrees that more highly employable, bilingual Chinese college graduates could prove alluring to multinational employers. “I think it’s only a matter of time until you really start to see businesses ramp up their efforts in a big way to take advantage of college-educated workers in the developing world, because there are a lot of opportunities,” explains Baker. “I think you’ll see many more cases where we have accounting, engineering, software, architecture—all of these things—being outsourced to China rather than these people actually coming to the United States and working here.”

Baker notes that while cheaper foreign labor in these high-skill sectors could benefit U.S. businesses and our economy as a whole, it will put added pressure on recent American college graduates looking for work. In the end, though, NYU is a private institution—and business—and not a branch of the U.S. government concerned with economic woes and job creation. If a Chinese college graduate beats out an American college graduate for a lucrative job, well, they’ll hope that that Chinese grad went to NYU Shanghai.

Jennifer Barron, 21, is a senior economics major at NYU in New York. Like many students preparing to finish school this spring, Barron is busy weighing her post-graduate options and applying for jobs.

“It’s definitely a concern,” she says, fresh from an interview with Vivaldi Partners Group, a market research and brand strategy firm in the city. “A lot of people who were even interviewing me today were foreign nationals—they were from all over the world. [Foreign competition] definitely plays into everything, but I don’t think it necessarily makes me feel like I’m not going to get a job.”

What is more of an immediate concern for Barron and other NYU students is high tuition, student loans, and plans to improve NYU on continents they may never actually visit.

“I personally don’t know if I see the value in having satellite campuses that are for all four years,” she says. “If you can’t solve the problems at home, you shouldn’t be worried about the problems abroad just yet.”

All of which raises the question: Besides bringing in money for its parent university, what is the ultimate purpose of NYU Shanghai?

“I don’t see what constituency this school is supposed to be serving,” says Karl, who has taught Chinese undergraduates studying at NYU New York and has described some as “rigid” in their thinking because of the strict rote learning practiced in Chinese grade schools. “If it shies away from controversial social science, and journalism, and all of the things that, of course, require a certain amount of freedom and freedom of speech, then perhaps it’ll find its niche somewhere and there will be enough students to fill the classrooms. But I’m skeptical.”