One of several joint venture universities set up between local and international partners in China, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou currently offers around 90 programs for students both from China and all over the world. In what has been a challenging year and a half for Chinese international education as border closures continue and geopolitical disputes spill over into the sector, Professor Youmin Xi, executive president of XJTLU, sat down with The PIE to talk about his work and how universities need to develop to suit the changing demands of society and the job market.
The PIE: Tell us about yourself.
Youmin Xi: I originally got a bachelors degree in physics, and then I got my master degree in system engineering, and I was involved in the decision process for projects like the Yangtze River Three Gorges Dam. Then I got my PhD degree in management engineering and was the director of one of the Strategic Studies Centres for Chinese Higher Education, where we developed research and policy reports for the national government.
I also used to be the dean of the management school at Xi’an Jiaotong University and was the vice president of Xi’an Jiaotong University for 10 years.
I’ve also had the chance to develop two different schools. One was Xi’an Jiaotong City University. The other was a collaboration with the local government in Shaanxi province, which had a lack of capable government officials and enterprise talent. The governor of Shaanxi province invited a few universities to develop a new higher education institution named the Shaanxi MBA College. It is focused on developing government officials and entrepreneurs for the local economy. I have been the founding executive dean since the creation of the college.
The PIE: And what about your work now with Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University?
YX: In the early 2000s, because China entered the World Trade Organisation, the door opened for international education institutions. On behalf Xi’an Jiaotong University I led a team to develop XJTLU with colleagues from UK. We got our license and first cohort of students in 2006. I was appointed executive president of XJTLU in 2008. This year is our 15th anniversary.
“The strategy of our university is not to simply copy the UK or other western education model or the Chinese education model”
The strategy of our university is not to simply copy the UK or other western education model or the Chinese education model. We are trying to follow the future development trends, so we developed this university according to future demands by combining the best practise in East and West to develop a new education system.
It’s time for us to change our education model from knowledge teaching to students’ growth, helping them learn how to learn, and develop their capabilities to deal with the complex, complicated situations which they will meet.
We have paid serious attention to helping the students to transform their learning behaviour to grow up quickly and also to find their personal interests. We wanted to have the students develop interest-driven and research-led learning, and critical thinking as well.
The PIE: Have you seen changes in the higher education system over the past few years? What challenges are people facing?
YX: Universities are trying their best to help their students to learn as much as possible. But now it’s relatively easier for the students to get information and knowledge from different pathways, for example online.
“Universities need to change their strategies and find what the real value is that the university and the education system can deliver to the students”
Universities need to change their strategies and find what the real value is that the university and the education system can deliver to students.
People are facing a challenge resulting from digitalisation and artificial intelligence. Now, even if we develop students as experts in some areas, the student can’t compete with artificial intelligence or with intelligent robots because they have a stronger capability to learn, to remember and to do things.
So we do need to teach students to use artificial intelligence, to cooperate with robots and digital platforms as a way to complement their wisdom, imagination and creativity.
The PIE: There are a lot of new projects in China related to developing education. Can you tell us about education in the Greater Bay Area?
The Chinese government tried to combine several cities to create a new area for future development that they call the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area. Here the central government has some very flexible policies and has set up an innovative environment, at the same time it is trying to use it to explore future social governance.
I think in future, it will be a hot place in the whole world for innovation, research and development and also for economic and social development.
As an entrepreneur university, it would be critical for us to play a role in this new district. So we cooperate with the local government in Guangzhou, and also in Shenzhen. We will develop an educational base in Shenzhen and in Guangzhou to test our 3.0 model, that is, to develop an innovative educational ecology by collaborating with government, companies and other institutions to support new education experiment and dissemination, lifelong learning, innovation and R&D, which will be ready in September.
Actually, we have started operations in the GBA already. We are developing a centre in Guangzhou’s Nansha city, and four education and research institute platforms have been created with local and international companies and institutions.
The PIE: Are geopolitical tensions a concern for higher education and international academic cooperation?
YX: Definitely we will face some challenges in the next few years or after the pandemic. But I’m an optimistic person because, in essence, no matter from which country or which nationality people come, they are trying to share knowledge and to learn from each other.
There is an inner desire for humans to cooperate, to communicate and to share knowledge and experience.
“There is an inner desire for humans to cooperate, to communicate and to share knowledge and experience”
Secondly, we have new technology. Even if there are confrontations between and among different countries, people can still easily communicate through WeChat or Facebook or other technology. Technology has created opportunities for future cooperation.
My prediction is that over the next few years, because the value systems are different, there will be more confrontations between Western countries and China. But in the long term, the people-to-people cooperation will continue.
But we do need to develop strategies or measures to help our students and our staff to overcome the barriers created by current geopolitical confrontation.
The PIE: How have your international students been faring during the pandemic?
YX: At this moment, we have more than 1,000 international students, some of them are studying in China, others are in their home countries and learning online or supported by our strengthened systems and service or local partners.
There is hope for our international students to come back gradually. But for international students at other universities, frankly I don’t know exactly.
We have pushed government to permit international students to come back according to the pandemic controlling situation and discussed with the local government about setting up good quarantine facilities and service for the students. Many cities have a different policy, two weeks, plus 14 days self-quarantine, it depends. So it’s very important for the university to partner with the local government to help the students to go through this difficult time.