The great stumble forward

There are few students in Groningen who know what the UG is planning in Yantai, China, despite the fact that the campus is one of the UG’s biggest projects in years. Only a business would think that building a campus in Yantai is a good idea, because there are only dubious financial reasons to make this great slip forward. A university that truly has the best interest of its community in mind has no business in Yantai.

by Jasper Been and Remco van der Meer

For two years now there have been issues surrounding Yantai. A short summary: the UG is attempting to establish a partnership with a Chinese agriculture university, in order to open a ‘branch campus’ in China. The University College Dublin and Wageningen University had already rejected the offer before the UG responded favourably. It sees the plans for a new campus as a way of making sure the university stays within the top 100 list of best universities. Also, as has been calculated by the board of the university (CVB), this will eventually result in thousands of Chinese students, every year, who will come to Groningen to study. Being from outside the European Union, these students will pay enormous amounts of money to study here, conveniently closing the budgetary gaps that are expected to occur when, after 2020, the amount of Dutch students will decline.

A report by the FEB lists the potential benefits of this project: more name recognition, and worldwide visibility for the university; more foreign students; more research; more exchange possibilities; and more cooperation between Dutch, and Chinese industry. As you can see, this will result in more, more, and more. What DAG would like is that we, as an academic community, ask the important question: is more always better?

Holiday trip

In order to convince the university council members of the Yantai plans, the CVB is taking a group of university managers on a trip to China. At first glance this would seem perfectly normal. If the academic council needs to decide if this great leap forward is a good idea, then it would only seem logical if they have been there at least once. What is dangerous about this excursion is that it just serves to impress, rather than encourage critical reflection. It might almost be argued that this excursion is intended as a bribe to sell staff members on the Yantai plans.

Had we received an invitation, and airplane ticket, we would have returned it without question. Going on holiday with the university board is a very ineffective way of discovering the real problems with the Yantai project. Realistically, the only issues that you will discover are practical ones. We think that reflection should start at home, by asking ourselves: is a project like Yantai appropriate for the UG?

Practical problems

First, lets discuss the practical issues, starting with using Yantai as a remedy for declining student numbers. The UG, being a financially minded organization, is tailoring her policies in order to make the university as attractive as possible for international students, by for example, ensuring a top 100 spot, making sure that almost every study program is in English, and by spending huge sums of cash on their marketing budget. The reasoning is that if this is not done, then the UG will have to start laying off staff, as the number of students will otherwise start to decline from 2020 and on. However, that the Yantai campus will draw thousands of Chinese students to Groningen is something that we will have to wait and see. The same goes for the prediction that the number of Chinese PhD-students, who bring big money for the university, will also rise. It is a big concern of the participation council whether or not these predictions prove to be accurate.

We think that the concern the university has, about the number of students, is a questionable one. Let us not forget that ten years ago the university could function perfectly well with half(!) of the current number of students. This enormous growth in student numbers can be explained by referring to the way the UG is financed by the government: more students, more money. A very logical consequence is that university managers are demanding more students, and have increased the marketing budget accordingly. However, an increasing number of people feel that there are now too many students at the UG. Can the declining number of students not be used to increase the quality of education, for example by increasing the number of contact hours between professors and students? Besides, should a decline in student numbers not be seen as a sign that society does not need as many academics?

Another important point of contention between the CVB, and the other parties is the UG’s reputation. Recently, Calimero’s party leader stated that ‘if the Yantai campus project becomes a failure, this would be damaging to the reputation of the UG, and also to the value of the diplomas of Dutch students.’ Apparently, it is not the content of a degree that determines the value of your degree, but rather the reputation of your university. This is a very typical attitude towards the Yantai project, as the positive effects for the image of the university is an important argument the CVB uses to support the project. It appears that they are not willing to discuss the actual content of our education and research, but rather its PR.

The fundamental issues

A much more important issue is the problem of academic freedom. Everyone is aware many types of freedoms do not flourish in China. The CVB has stated that they have made agreements with the Chinese government to ensure that academic freedom will be ‘tolerated’. They even go so far as to make it a breaking point of the project: no academic freedom means no Yantai campus. In order to substantiate this argument, the UG will visit the New York University Shanghai campus during their trip to China. The CVB argues that om this campus academic freedom has been ensured, and it has organised several public meetings in Groningen, in order to communicate the agreements that it has made with the Chinese government.

In our eyes, this is one of the biggest issues surrounding Yantai: the redution of academic freedom to a practical issue. It is something that the UG has had to negotiate on with the Chinese government. Everyone should surely understand that the agreements with the Chinese government are worthless whenever there is a contentious case. No wonder that the UG wants to spearhead the project with research in the field of natural sciences. Even though science can never be truly neutral, these fields are the least likely to aggravate the Chinese authorities with education or research that is critical to their regime. Self censoring at its best. What happens if, when the UG has its courses, and staff in Yantai, and the Chinese government decides to change the agreements. It is an unstable situation, and diplomatic thin ice we should stay far away from.

The issue is not whether academic freedom can be guaranteed, rather the question is if it exists at all. What does it say about the UG if it is even considering making a choice between (expected) financial gain, and academic freedom. Only a business can make these types of decisions: ‘are the benefits greater than the costs?’ Academic freedom is one of the fundamental pillars in a university’s foundation. Academic freedom in Groningen is also under pressure, however this is absolutely nothing compared to the situation in China. Any critique about the Chinese government society is out of the question, and that is not even going into the issue of widespread censorship, where cases like The Great Firewall are well-known examples.

Moreover, what does it say about the UG if it is making a choice between financial gain, and corruption, by cooperating with a regime that violates human rights. Although reports such as the one by Amnesty International, or by Human Rights Watch might seem distant to us, it is this regime who will have a large voice in the Yantai project. This type of cooperation is incommensurable with the values that should be essential to a university.

Even if there were no problems in china with academic freedom or human rights, it is still useless to go on vacation with the CVB. A much better alternative would be to stay at home, and contemplate whether the Yantai campus will improve the quality of education and research in Groningen. That is the fundamental question we should be asking ourselves. The answer is no: the Yantai campus is only useful to make the UG bigger, and not to maker her better. For anyone who looks critically at this project the only possible conclusion is that there are no real benefits.

There is enough work to be done in Groningen to give back students their own responsibility, to regain the trust of staff, and to make to task load of researchers reasonable once more. Enough can be read on these subjects in our programme, or in other articles DAG has posted online. A solution to these issues can not be found in Yantai. Let us lead by example and build a flourishing, democratic, academic community, and other will follow. But we shall build this community on pillars of academic values, and not on those of PR firms, empty rankings, or donations by totalitarian regimes.

Uncritical student representation

Because of the reasons mentioned above, we regret the fact that the only ‘criticism’ that has come from the existing student representation has been about the risk of the enterprise, not about the underlying reasons for the project. Criticism was almost completely absent with SOG, and Calimero’s well-intentioned criticism remains superficial. The fact of the matter is that the existing student representatives haven’t defended our academic integrity to the extent we would have liked. Values like plurality, academic education, freedom of research, and above all the emancipatory goal of science.

We appreciate that Calimero worked for the right of consent on the Yantai issue, with the vote to take place at the end of summer. It must be said however, that is it absurd that the university council does not have right of consent on these kind of issues from the outset. Not to mention that the student parties could have voted against back in June 2015, when a similar right had already been obtained. Back then, the university board convinced the parties to consent because their negotiating position in China might be affected otherwise. The students went along with this because they would otherwise be denied their informal say in the matter. “Our position with the university board would otherwise worsen enormously. We would only be able to give our say when we are officially allowed to do so”. The situation begs the question what is worse: that the university board uses this kind of threats or that a student party accepts it. All this makes us painfully aware of how vulnerable the position of student representation currently is. We do not have a say when we it is really necessary.

In short, the Yantai project is ill-motivated, and founded on misplaced wishes. The undemocratic, and impregnable policy-making process is also worrisome. We would gladly cooperate with managers to improve the university. A big project can be part of that endeavour, and so can the taking of risks. But these kind of considerations should never be taken on the basis of cold cost-benefit analyses, but rather be founded on the question: will this help us carry out the social task a university has? Moreover, such a decision should only be taken in agreement with the entire academic community, after a deliberative process that has included a sizeable number of people. If the university board has faith in her own plans, and trusts our community, a referendum would be a good way to decide on the issue. At any rate, we should take these kinds of decisions together, on the basis of reasons that are worthy of a university.