Policy changes in the education sector in China are frequent, unexpected, and often vaguely-worded declarations that leave much room for interpretation. The recent law addressing non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, states that foreign schools “must not endanger China’s national unity” or “harm societal public interest.” But what exactly crosses these lines is not entirely clear.
“Certainly I think it adds an element of uncertainty to the regulatory climate that makes universities nervous,” says Elizabeth Redden, who has covered education policy in China for the website Inside Higher Ed for several years, referring to the NGO law. “Universities don’t like unclear regulatory environments. They like to know what they’re getting into.”
Much of this uncertainty arises from China’s conflicted educational reform agenda. In 2010, China unveiled its 10-year plan for education reform, a 22-chapter document full of promising rhetoric seeking to open China’s education sector, make use of “quality education resources from abroad,” and “further emancipate” students’ minds. Among the specifics of the plan, it stated that “quality textbooks shall be imported.” Yet early last year, a top-level directive against “Western values” resulted in a push to remove foreign textbooks from campuses. Not only did this contradict publicly stated policy goals, but surely also acted as a red flag for foreign universities considering establishing a China campus.