China’s Elite Universities: Blackpool Before EasyJet

UV Letter - Volume II, #25

One of the great virtues of a liberal arts education is its demonstrated ability to prepare students for a multitude of different employment paths – not only later in life, but immediately upon graduation. My post-graduation decision matrix was particularly eclectic: Management consultant; English teacher in China; Florida-based supermarket tabloid.

We’ll leave the tabloid story for another time. With respect to the China opportunity, I participated in a series of interviews for one program that would have placed me as an English teacher in a Chinese city I had never heard of. When asked about my interest in China, which was not at all evident from either my CV or transcript, I used all the liberal arts skills I could muster to link my study of modernism in literature and art to a heretofore unannounced lifelong passion for inquiry into the question of whether the forces of industrialization then clearly underway in China would produce similar tendencies in Chinese artists and writers. I was impressed with myself; the interview panel, much less so.

In retrospect, I would have done better talking about my interest in higher education and the remarkable changes then underway in China. The results are earthshattering. Chinese higher education enrolment grew at an annual rate of 17% between 1998 and 2010. In the current decade, China will produce almost 3 times the number of college graduates as the U.S.

At the same time, this increase in capacity has not yet corresponded to an improvement in global recognition. China (and Asia generally) continue to have scant representation at the top of all global rankings, including the Shanghai Jiao Tong list. And when a ranking of the top global universities under the age of 50 was produced earlier this year, the country with the largest number of institutions was the UK.

This isn’t through lack of trying. A stated goal of Chinese higher education policy has been to elevate its top universities to world-class status. In 2009, the government established the C9, the Chinese Ivy League, including Fudan, Peking, Nanjing, Tsinghua, and Shanghai Jiao Tong. Each university recently received $270M in government funding and is pulling out all the stops (relocation bonuses as high as $150k) to draw back “sea turtles” – Chinese Ph.D.s from abroad.

But concerns over quality abound. Complaints at elite universities range from lack of capacity at the C9, struggling with surging enrollment (“Good luck trying to find a seat in the library. You can’t find a seat even at 3 in the morning”) to more fundamental complaints at India’s IITs: shortages of equipment, poor pay for faculty, and quotas that enroll students who can’t read or speak English. Plagiarism and the capability to do original work is a dominant concern. Yale recently terminated a joint undergraduate program with Peking after a Yale faculty member blew the whistle on academic quality. Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Stearns wrote to his Peking students: "The fact that I have encountered this much plagiarism at PKU tells me something about the behavior of other professors and administrators here. They must tolerate a lot of it, and when they detect it, they cover it up without serious punishment, probably because they do not want to lose face. If they did punish it, it would not be this frequent.” A recent Boston Consulting Group survey of the global higher education market assigned points to countries for the strength of its elite universities. The U.S. led with 91, followed by the UK with 48. China had 8, India 6.

The great irony is that the returns from elite credentials are relatively higher in China than anywhere else. Pressures on Chinese high school students to cram for the Gaokao, gateway to the C9, are legendary. Private tutoring, already endemic in Japan and Korea, is spreading across China and India. Earlier this year, the Chinese media was ablaze with photos of cramming students hooked to energy- boosting IV drips. The Economist reported that birth control pills are administered to female students who fear menstruating on test day. But it is true that less than 0.5% of Gaokao takers will get into the C9. A typical reaction reported in Inside Higher Education: “I placed in the top 10%, not good enough to get into the C9. I felt like my life was over.” While exaggerated, it is unquestionably a huge setback. In China, graduates of lower-tier institutions face a hard job hunt; the World Economic Form estimates that only 10% of Chinese engineering graduates are immediately employable without remediation.


The situation is analogous to the UK vacation market prior to the launch of low-cost airlines. Prior to massified air travel, UK tourists would swarm to the best vacation options available in the UK: holiday camps at seaside resorts like Blackpool. In its heyday, Blackpool might have been the best vacation spot in the UK, but anyone who’s been there knows that’s like saying it was the tallest midget. Once EasyJet and Ryanair began offering cheap flights to Majorca and Santorini, Blackpool’s days were numbered.

So the question the C9 – and all of Chinese higher education – needs to face is this: What happens when Chinese students have access to the EasyJets and Ryanairs of higher education, providing affordable transport to the university equivalents of Majorca and Santorini i.e., the brands that dominate the global rankings – in the U.S. and the UK?

Leaders in this market will undoubtedly emerge in this decade. China and other large Asian countries have by far the most vibrant consumer education markets globally. Cultural belief in education as the only vehicle for economic advancement is so strong that Chinese families spend (depending on the study) between 6-20% of their income on education. So with average annual income of $5,000, Chinese families may be spending as much as $1,000 each year on education. Compare this to the U.S. where half of families report zero spending on education, and you’ll understand why many education entrepreneurs have a fervent belief that the really important innovations in consumer education (including higher education) over the next decade will occur in and for Asian markets.

As to what form these market leaders take, bet on two things. First, that winning programs will be directly relevant to large Asian markets, not simply the same programs offered at home. This could mean programs custom-developed for Chinese students with clear program learning objectives meaningful to Chinese employers, or dual degree programs developed in association with the likes of the C9 (hopefully without the plagiarism). It may also mean dual-language programs: programs in Mandarin, Cantonese or Hindi that gradually migrate students to English-language study.

Second, that they will be responsive to Vizzini, the self-described Sicilian criminal genius played by Wallace Shawn in the film The Princess Bride, who advised hero Westley: “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders, the most famous of which is: Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” A number of leaders in the “pathways” sector have already emerged. INTO, Study Group and Navitas recruit Asian students and provide paths to travel overseas and earn degrees from UK and U.S. universities. But these programs aren’t affordable for families earning $5,000, or even a multiple of that number. The EasyJets and Ryanairs of higher education will be those that transform the current land war into an air war: making affordable online (or primarily online) programs from world-class U.S. and UK institutions accessible, relevant and appealing to those students currently dependent on IV drips in order to have a shot at a global-elite university.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.