Designing UK-China transnational and joint programmes
There were 229 joint degree partnerships between UK and Chinese HEIs in 2019[note 1]. Economics, as a subject area, is the third most popular after engineering and management. Economics contributes, of course, to management programmes, which is an umbrella term encompassing business and related programmes, meaning it features in about a third of all UK-China joint programmes.
The medium- and long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on international student mobility (to the UK and globally) is yet to be seen. However, it is safe to say that HEIs are already adjusting to a market that is starting to favour more international education at home. The pandemic is certainly not the only factor which brought this about. Increased cost of travel and living abroad, and the expansion away from metropolitan areas in search of new markets, have undoubtedly contributed to this. Regardless, there is every reason to believe that joint degree programmes are set to gain even more prominence in the future.
In this case study, I‘m offering an academic’s perspective into designing joint programmes. This is not intended to be a complete road map for joint UK-China programmes, but a brief commentary on design and delivery. I do not wish to discuss administrative arrangements except where these are pertinent to the programme itself. I am considering 4+0 (undergraduate) joint programmes only. Some of the issues I discuss relate to alternative arrangements, such as 1+3, 2+2, 3+1 joint programmes, however, such programmes invariably operate almost semi-independently (whether they should, is another issue) in their constituent parts, and therefore some considerations do not apply directly.
"There is every reason to believe that joint degree programmes are set to gain even more prominence in the future."
Inception of the joint programme
In most instances, the suggestion of a joint programme will come to academic departments from professional services staff responsible for developing international partnerships, markets, recruitment etc. Such opportunities are often highlighted, and initial discussions facilitated, by British Council staff, who offer an invaluable service in filtering opportunities and advising on appropriateness of partnerships. Educational agents are another source of information on partnership opportunities, and they can be very effective in matching departments based on common interests, size, scope etc. Agents will undoubtedly have a financial stake in the partnership. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and educational agents can be very efficient and effective with paperwork, and student recruitment. A third avenue is through working relationships and links of academic staff with HEIs in China.
In any case, there are two important initial questions to be answered. What is the benefit to students taking the programme? And what are the benefits to the departments involved? In more succinct terms, why do it? Increased recruitment and income is an obvious answer to the latter question, however, a successful joint programme needs a convincing answer to the former. We must go back to first principles of programme design and consider the aspirations prospective students have and how studying this programme (instead of another) will help them achieve those. A joint programme intends to bring an international perspective, and the knowledge and expertise of foreign faculty to students studying at home. These should not be seen as substituting those of local academics, but complement them, thus creating synergies – what we may consider as economies of scope in this setting. Such an approach will pave the way for successful design and delivery of the joint programme.
One defining feature of any UK-China joint programme, is the 1/3 rule, which requires that any foreign partner in a joint programme is responsible for at least a third of that programme. For a UK institution this would at the surface translate to a third of the modules students take for the award. However, modules in Chinese HEIs not only carry different credits (and credits are calculated differently) but are also delivered in considerably more contact hours. So, it is important to clarify from the outset, whether the 1/3 rule applies to modules or hours, and plan accordingly.
A successful joint programme must be more than a collage of courses offered by each department. There must be synergies in the delivery and complementarities in content. Most courses comprising an academic programme of study are not stand-alone units but build on each other over the levels and this then requires alignment of material across the programme. An average Chinese degree programme has a four-year duration, and comprises of around 60[note 2] modules, each carrying different credits. In contrast, in the UK, modules usually carry 15-20 credits each. What this means in practice is that the material covered in one UK module, is likely to be covered in multiple modules in China. So, the programme designer must take that into account when deciding which modules to include from each institution into the programme. Some overlap or replication of material is unavoidable. However, this could work to the students’ benefit and should not be considered a drawback.
For modules delivered by the Chinese partner HEI and included in the UK degree structure, credit translation is not straightforward, and disparities exist even among Chinese HEIs. UK institutions may try to award degrees based on their credits alone — if their degree award algorithms permit it — but then one must question how the programme is joint in anything but name. My suggestion to the design team would be to study the curricula carefully. If content needs to be adjusted, so be it, and staff at each institution should work closely together in designing each syllabus. This will also promote agency with the programme among staff at both institutions, which can only translate to increased commitment and support for it.
There are different delivery modes an institution could choose from: flying faculty (UK staff are sent to the Chinese partner to teach either for a semester or in block delivery), employing local staff, and/or sharing T&L material. From a pedagogical perspective this is a key decision. Academics should be aware that teaching in a joint programme in China (or any other country for that matter) does not mean delivering the same material, in the same way but in a different location. Some may think that it is similar to teaching Chinese (or international) students in the UK, but the audience is different by virtue of not being in the UK alone. Therefore, staff should be prepared to adapt both material and delivery tactics while teaching abroad. Similar considerations apply to local faculty delivering T&L material designed by academics in the UK. It is therefore paramount that in any case, academic staff from both institutions work together not only in the design of syllabi and curricula but also share good practice, advice, and guidance in the delivery of the programme. Needless to say, that imperialistic or narcissistic attitudes from either side will be counterproductive, if not detrimental.
Teaching and assessing in English may require additional English language tuition and support. Language centres should be involved from the outset and English built into the curriculum, if need be. We must also be aware of the language teaching approaches taken by the Chinese institution. Emphasis may be on written rather than spoken language. This may need to be taken into consideration when designing assessments for the other modules e.g. avoid presentations and verbal examinations.
The benefits of designing and running joint programmes are wide ranging, from creating institutional, departmental, and personal links, to spill-over effects in student exchanges and staff mobility, KTP etc. One of the wider educational benefits of running joint programmes with international, not just Chinese, partner HEIs, is the opportunity to internationalise the curriculum (IoC). Designing T&L material for an international student audience, indirectly contributes to the IoC effort, which most UK HEIs currently only pay lip service to. My advice to economics departments would be to seek out opportunities to collaborate in joint programmes of study. While Business and Management related subjects are taking the lion’s share in joint programmes currently, joint programmes in or involving Economics could be equally, if not more popular – especially programmes on international trade, labour, health, environment/sustainability etc.
 Quite a few of these modules are so-called compulsory general education modules which have nothing or little to do with the subject matter of the programme, and are usually taught in year 1, which can be considered as FY for the UK degree.