The China Strategy

A whole-of-university approach to sustainable engagement with Greater China
February 2015

This is the summary of the final draft of the China strategy after discussions at the Regional Advisory Group for China, SEG International, SEG and Senate. The full Strategy will be issued as soon as practicable following SEG approval.


China has emerged as arguably the largest higher education system in the world. Despite the success of large-scale higher education reforms and of improvements in international rankings, Chinese universities continue to face challenges of academic quality, research performance and institutional autonomy. As a consequence, there remains strong international competition for the Chinese student market.

Competition from other universities in Australia and internationally is becoming increasingly intense in the areas of research collaboration and partnership and student recruitment. North American universities in particular are pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate students strongly and have opened offices and flagship academic centres. These serve both to profile their brand and give direct access to the network of international and public high schools in major Chinese cities. They also facilitate connections with peer institutions, business and industry.

At the same time our role in collaboration with Chinese universities is changing. Our dominant, capacity-building position of recent decades is changing to a position closer to parity with leading institutions in terms of the quality of teaching and research being produced. A select group of Chinese universities is rising in the performance rankings as a result of significant and targeted investment by the Chinese Government. With performance improvement comes the risk of overseas universities being ‘locked out’ as preferred international partners and collaborators, as Chinese universities become more discerning about the reputation, prestige and quality of the universities with which they seek to build strategic research and exchange alliances.

As more and more universities throughout the US, the UK and Europe identify opportunities in the current climate, competition for collaboration and partnerships will increase and our current advantage of deep, long-term engagement in and intellectual leadership on China may not guarantee us a position in this market. It is vital that the University of Sydney access these opportunities now as a key strategic partner.

Our strategy for China considers this highly competitive international context and adopts measures to ensure that leading institutions in China continue to identify the University of Sydney as a premium partner, understand its values of intellectual plurality and dispassionate enquiry and see them as a strength in the work we do, see our research and research leaders as world-class, trust our institution and our people as a target for investment, and recognise the potential for innovation and knowledge exchange that comes through close collaboration in education and research.

Our conpetitive advantage

Firstly, tradition is on our side, and tradition remains important in China. The University of Sydney has a long history of engagement with China, and has been Australia’s leading university in this respect. It has taught Chinese language and culture for nearly a century – the first university in Australia to do so – and was one of the first universities in the world to welcome Chinese students (the Gang of Nine, in 1979) after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Furthermore, the bilateral science and research collaboration between Australia and China can be traced back to a collaboration in radio astronomy initiated in 1963 by the University of Sydney’s Professor Wilbur “Chris” Christiansen, who visited China as a guest of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Our collaborations with China therefore date from well before China acquired global interest.

Our continuing commitment to engagement with China has led to several more recent ‘firsts’. The University held the first ever Graduation Ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2005, an event that has now grown into an annual university-wide delegation involving government meetings, alumni receptions, symposia, faculty activities, and media programs. The University opened the first Confucius Institute in NSW in 2008, in partnership with Fudan University. Sydney was the only university to be a Gold Sponsor of the Australian Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.

The scale of the University’s research engagement with China is second to none in Australia and in the top league internationally. Between 2000 and 2010 the University published more than 1700 joint scientific and research papers with China – far more than any other Australian university (figures from the Australian Government report, Science and Research Collaboration between Australia and China) – and these joint publications are highly cited, particularly in Economics, Econometrics and Finance, Nursing, Energy, Environmental Science, Physics and Astronomy. In the 2009 Thomson Reuters Global Research Report, the University was placed fifth in the world for joint scientific publications with China.

In terms of educational engagement, in 2013 the University’s enrolments from China (excluding SARs and Taiwan) accounted for 5.1% of the Chinese students enrolled in the higher education sector in Australia; and student demand continues to grow. The University hosts an alumni reception in China each year as part of its annual delegation.

Finally, the strength of the University’s commitment to Sino-Australian relations is evident in its establishing of the China Studies Centre in January 2011. The Centre combines the expertise and talents of around 140 academics, fostering multi-disciplinary work on modern China, particularly its economy, public health and social history. It also provides strategic advice on the University’s broader relations with China.

Outlook for prospects with China

China is undergoing a reform process in which it aims by 2020 to be a middle income level country with per capita GDP levels of USD13,000, double those of 2012. A core part of this journey is to create a powerful service and education sector of its own.

Part of the drive to strengthen education is because of the practical issue of the lack of well qualified middle and senior management in China, and the need to educate a new generation of people for government, business and academia rather than being reliant on recruiting people externally. In the last two decades, over 1 million Chinese have studied abroad. But the likelihood is that increasing numbers, for cost and other reasons, will now want to stay in China to learn, as the universities there improve. There is also a cultural dimension to the drive to strengthen education: families and extended networks support students in China, and the premium on education is very high. It is regarded as a crucial investment, and something that has cross-social support.

The Chinese government itself has admitted the weaknesses in the current secondary and tertiary level education system. It is too reliant on rote learning, lacks creativity and is too uniform. But more importantly, the Chinese have failed to build a foundation for a more innovative system that feeds the economy and nurtures world-class brands and products. The 2007 government white paper on innovation, setting out a 15-year vision for supporting local creativity, has so far failed, largely due to its stress on product rather than process innovation. Chinese companies are not currently globally competitive in terms of innovation, and Chinese research and development, while voluminous, are contaminated by issues of plagiarism, poor quality and lack of robustness. It is clear now that partnership with knowledge communities outside China is the best way to help China innovate. It is something the government is putting huge resources and effort into. It also provides a key opportunity for universities outside China to engage more deeply with highly motivated but often poorly directed research partners in China across a range of disciplines.

The aspirations of China, as the world's second biggest economy, have to be taken seriously, because many of their researchers are engaging with global issues like environmental change, public health, sustainable cities and food security. In working with them, we are involved in issues of international importance and in promoting the values of dispassionate enquiry practically rather than theoretically. China's stable growth and prosperity, and its struggle to address sustainability issues, are intrinsically global. The University of Sydney, therefore, is perfectly placed to work with partners in China on these challenges at a very practical level. It just needs the optimal routes to do this.

Rationale for developing a new approach to China

China is identified in the Strategic Plan 2011-15 as one of the University’s most important regional priorities. Our engagement with China has four broad objectives:

  1. Research: Support for joint research which is of high quality, is innovative and collaborative, and which respects the University’s intellectual culture of tolerance, free expression and plurality.
  2. Education: Support for increasing China literacy amongst young Australians by giving them opportunities to study China related issues, and study in China.
  3. Students: Sustainable growth in the recruitment of quality students.
  4. Alumni: Nurturing of our alumni within China.

But we now find ourselves in a situation where several areas of engagement require attention internally, including the high concentration of Chinese students within a small number of degree courses and faculties, and the under-developed alumni program. And despite the ‘academic capital’ we have built with China over the years, we have not positioned ourselves optimally to identify, pursue and secure high-value research partnerships and exchange alliances in the face of increasing global competition.

It is for these reasons that a more coherent, integrated, competitive, and therefore sustainable, approach to engagement with China is vital. The whole-of-university China Strategy is a means to achieve this, in particular by identifying the potential synergies across different parts of the University and recommending a framework to harness them to achieve common goals.


The China Strategy comprises 4 high-level strategic objectives and 15 initiatives to realise those objectives. Each initiative in turn involves several actions. Further details will need to be fleshed out in a subsequent implementation planning phase dependent on where responsibility for each of these lies.

Strategic Objectives

The strategic objectives distinguish between academic and non-academic objectives, and between the Australian and Chinese ‘faces’ of these objectives. The first distinction is fundamental, since our core business is education and research. The second distinction is important because we intend to achieve different things in each country, and also because the cultural and political differences between the two countries need to be explicitly acknowledged and accommodated in any planning exercise. Nonetheless, there is a strong degree of permeability and reciprocity between the strategic objectives: all interrelate with and inform each other.

The importance of ‘recognition’ is captured in these strategic objectives. The point is to acknowledge the reciprocity between perceptions and actions, and to leverage this as a ‘virtuous cycle’.

Finally, the strategic objectives are deliberately uncoupled from perspectives associated with the University’s organisational units. The purpose of this is to allow a whole-of-university approach to take precedence so that the strategy can be greater than the sum of its organisational parts. Each strategic objective will be the product of complex synergies between multiple stakeholders contributing to multiple initiatives.

  1. Strategic objective 1 (Australia focus – core academic business)
    To be the leading university in Australia for quantity, quality and scale of academic engagement (education and research) with China, and one which acts as a powerful symbol of the values of dispassionate intellectual enquiry – and to be recognised as such.
  2. Strategic objective 2 China focus – core academic business)
    To be a university-of-choice in China for international study and research collaborations – and to be recognised as such.
  3. Strategic objective 3 (Australia focus – other business)
    To be Australia’s primary source of knowledge about China and a major conduit for interactions with policymakers, businesses, specialist groups, and media – and to be recognised as such.
  4. Strategic objective 4 (China focus – other business)
    To be a trusted partner in China for government, non-government, business, industry and community sector linkages, investment and philanthropy – and to be recognised as such.

The fifteen initiatives

  1. Establish a dedicated ‘China Fund’ to support the China Strategy.
  2. Establish a physical presence in China: a multi-function centre (MFC).
  3. Promote the University’s China vision and credentials in China and in Australia.
  4. Establish priority partnerships with select Chinese universities.
  5. Establish deeper links with Australian, Chinese and international government bodies, policymakers, and business and industry leaders on China-related issues.
  6. Support research and teaching about China within the University.
  7. Increase Australians’ understanding and appreciation of China.
  8. Implement a plan for the sustainable recruitment of Chinese international students.
  9. Implement an alumni relations plan for China, to increase retention and improve engagement.
  10. Implement a fundraising development plan for China, to identify and pursue philanthropic opportunities.
  11. Increase domestic students’ interest in and engagement with China.
  12. Promote greater interaction between domestic students and international Chinese students at the University to promote values of and capacities for cultural diversity and global citizenship.
  13. Implement a plan to advance reciprocal relations with China on education and research into practices, knowledges and issues pertaining to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Chinese ethnic nationalities.
  14. Implement an engagement plan for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, focusing on academic engagement, development and alumni work.
  15. Implement an engagement plan for Taiwan, focusing on academic engagement, development and alumni work.