It costs more than Rmb100,000 ($15,057) a year to attend the University of Nottingham in Ningbo.
So when a popular drama on Hunan TV suggested that the education there was sub-par, the university’s teachers and alumni protested.
“I worked hard for my degree, I don’t want it tarnished,” one former student fumed online.
“The producers of this show should visit our library at 1am, they will see how high our standards are,” wrote another.
The television show that questioned the university’s academic rigour was The Road Runs White Tonight, a youth drama based on a popular online novel.
It tells the story of Gu Yebai, a struggling, colour-blind artist.
In the scene that caused the stir, an upmarket gallery owner is telling Gu’s rival, Zhai, that she wants to sign Gu as a client. She mentions that Gu is well educated, having graduated from Nottingham Ningbo. But Zhai disagrees. “I was also at Nottingham for four years. I know what kind of student goes there. As long as you hand in your assignment you will graduate,” he says.
The episode, which aired on November 1, drew a quick response from the university, which demanded an apology and threatened legal action.
“The University of Nottingham is one of the top 100 universities in the world,” it said on its social media accounts, adding that its graduates are much sought-after by the world’s top 500 companies.
The university began teaching students in China in 2004 and it opened its Ningbo campus in 2006 – the first foreign university to get a licence in mainland China. Building the school’s brand is an important part of Provost Chris Rudd’s job.
Its 8,000 students are taught in English and receive a University of Nottingham degree at the end of their course – the same degree they would get if they studied on the original UK campus.
There are now more than 20 foreign universities operating in mainland China and they compete with local universities and overseas institutions for students.
Education experts say they play a valuable role – allowing Chinese students to get a foreign education while staying close enough to family and friends. Yet for some families – many of whom are negotiating the process of sending a child to university for the first time – courses like Nottingham’s don’t have the same prestige of studying overseas at an academic institution or a top flight Chinese university.
A widely held belief is that some of the campuses have been set up simply to exploit the Chinese market.
“You have to remember that a generation ago there wasn’t this choice,” explains one advisor. “It’s a lot of money and people want to make sure they are getting good value.”
Yet it is not just foreign universities in China that have to monitor how they are perceived by the public. Seats of learning across the world, perhaps unknown to them, can develop a reputation that doesn’t match their status at home.
For example, WiC staff have frequently been told by Chinese students (researching where to do Master’s degrees), that Bristol University in the UK is “quite easy to get into” – even though it ranks highly in almost all academic surveys.
(In fact, this same perception seems to largely hold for all UK universities outside London with the exceptions of Cambridge and Oxford and seems to be fuelled by online chatter. In some ways it’s not dissimilar to the tendency of Chinese to stereotype their compatriots from other provinces and regard these characterisations as established truths – see WiC124.)
After the outrage, Hunan TV apologised to Nottingham Ningbo. “We had no intention to maliciously slander the University,” it said.
“In the following episodes you will see that the characters, as a result of their hard schoolwork, go on to start businesses and exert positive energy,” it added.
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