Launch pad for ties with China
30 June 2010
The University of Sydney is taking on an active role at the Shanghai Expo.
Over the next six months, 70 million people, nearly all of them Chinese, are expected to pass through the gates of the World Expo in Shanghai.
With luck, about 10 per cent of them will queue up to look inside the rusty-red steel shed that is the Australian Pavilion, where they will find the University of Sydney mixing with some of the biggest names in corporate Australia.
The university is pumping about $1 million into the expo, paying for a gold sponsorship of the pavilion. Some might see this as surprising, given that only 18 months ago the university was caught at the sharp edge of the global financial crisis, which at one point wiped $210 million off the value of its equity portfolio.
But if the crisis taught the world one thing, it is that difficult situations demand positive action. With Australia's higher education sector facing an uncertain future, investment in the World Expo is a stimulus package that we expect will pay dividends. The decision for us was not so much about whether we could afford to be there, it was about whether we could afford not to be there.
Much of the talk surrounding higher education concerns the perceived threat to international student enrolments. Tougher visa requirements and the damage to the reputation of the entire sector caused by the collapse of a handful of private colleges has undoubtedly had an impact. The International Education Association of Australia is predicting a fall of 100,000 in international student enrolments over the next year.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that we are not concerned about this. We have been welcoming ever-increasing numbers of Chinese students since 1979, when the Gang of Nine, the first group of students permitted to study overseas under Deng Xiaoping's reforms, came to Sydney. We now have more than 5000 Chinese students, approximately 45 per cent of our international student population. This may well be the largest concentration of Chinese students at any university outside China.
But the university's presence at the expo is driven not so much by a concern to prop up its intake of Chinese students as by a desire to show that it is deadly serious about its relationship with China. It sends a message that we are a knowledge leader and that we want to foster research and educational partnerships with China.
Many of the links are already in place. At the latest count the university has 55 research partnerships and collaborations with Chinese universities. In the newly published Thomson Reuters Global Research Report, we are ranked fifth in the world for scientific research collaborations with China.
This involvement reflects the fact that, in the past decade, the rise of Chinese universities in terms of quantity and quality has been the most striking development in international education. In the next decade, China's top universities - led by Peking University, Tsinghua, Fudan and Shanghai Jiao Tong - will make significant inroads into the world's-best rankings.
The era of educational imperialism is long gone. These days China is an equal partner in all areas of research. The University of Sydney's first expo event, a symposium focusing on spintronics technology, involves world-leading researchers from Nanjing, Shanghai and Beijing.
Spintronics is a complex area of research, carried out at a sub-atomic scale, that is likely to produce the next generation of computers and electronic devices. And according to Simon Ringer, director of the Australian Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis, the breakthroughs are not all going to take place in Silicon Valley. They could just as easily happen in Shanghai.
For us, the Shanghai Expo and the series of academic meetings we are holding with Chinese partners are a launch pad for an increasing level of engagement with China.
Our plans will gain further momentum next year with the opening of a China Studies Centre on the same lines as our successful United States Studies Centre.
Quite by chance, we have 88 members of our academic staff working on the project - a number that, as anybody who has spent time in China knows, is bound to bring good luck.
Media enquiries: Richard North, 9351 3191, firstname.lastname@example.org