For decades Israel has looked to the West for higher education initiatives, student exchanges and research collaborations.
In recent years, however, a new age of globalization of higher education has Israel looking east, and forging unprecedented education collaborations with China.
At the forefront of this newly developing partnership, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology remains poised to open the first Israeli higher academic institution in China.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Prof.
Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion and head of the Association of University Heads in Israel (VERA), discussed the internationalization of higher education and the new trend in the academic world of partnering with China.
“China is undergoing a major change in its economy, in its urbanization and particularly in its education,” Lavie told the Post.
“The Chinese invest unbelievable amounts of money in their universities; they are undergoing an education revolution,” he said.
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As part of this revolution, which has seen numerous universities around the world take part, the Technion will open the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (GTIIT) in Shantou, in the Guangdong province in southeastern China.
According to Lavie, the Technion was approached by Li Ka-shing, a Chinese businessman and philanthropist whose foundation donated $130 million to fund the new university – the largest donation ever made to the Technion and one of the largest donations to higher education in Israel.
“When I asked Li Ka-shing why he believed the Technion should open a branch in China, he said, ‘because of your values,’” Lavie said.
“It is very prestigious that the second largest economy in the world asks Israel for education [collaborations],” he said.
“On the other hand we are admired in the East to the point of embarrassment.
They see Israel as an empire of creativity,” he added. “It is heartwarming to see how they view Israel and the Jews.”
Lavie added that he also sees the collaboration with China as a strategic goal for Israel.
“The world is borderless when it comes to higher education,” Lavie said.
“There is a phenomenon of globalization in higher education and Israel hasn’t been part of it so far,” he said.
“Leading countries include the US, UK, Germany and Australia, and I think we should be there too.”
According to the Technion president, language is the major barrier in Israel that prevents students from studying in the country.
“English has become the language of education and the language of science.
In order to attract students to Israel, we must teach in English,” he asserted.
“We are considered to be an excellent higher education system but we are very closed,” he said. “We have to open our gates.”
He cited the example of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, a research university of caliber which specializes in physical sciences and engineering, 75% of whose students are not Swiss.
“They are attracting the best students in the world,” he said. “We should be doing the same.”
Lavie explained that courses at the new university in China will be taught in English to Chinese and international students. “We are recruiting international faculty which we cannot do in Israel,” he explained. “Our goal is to establish an elite university, modeled after the Technion.”
The new university represents a historic collaboration between the Technion and Shantou University in China, a relatively young university founded in 1981.
Shantou currently consists of eight colleges and schools and has some 10,000 students and 90,000 graduates.
The GTIIT, set to enroll its first class of students in the upcoming 2016-17 academic year, will be comprised of three schools: the College of Engineering; the College of Science; and the College of Life Sciences.
Areas of study will eventually include chemical engineering, materials engineering, environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, mathematics, physics, biotechnology and food engineering, biology, and biochemical engineering.
By 2025 the GTIIT is expected to enroll some 5,000 students made up of 4,000 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students.
“We will start by teaching environmental engineering – it is currently a top priority for the Chinese,” he said. “With time we hope that GTIIT will become a very influential university and form links with other universities.”
In the future, an industrial park is also planned for the GTIIT campus, which will serve as a foothold for Israeli companies to enter key markets in China.
“Everything is invested by the Chinese,” Lavie explained. “I have no doubt China will be the leading economic system in the world, and the market for Israeli companies is endless so we also see ourselves as a bridgehead for Israeli industries into China.”
While the Technion is paving the way, it is not the only Israeli institution to have forged academic ties with China.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Jilin University (JLU), the biggest university in China, also recently signed an agreement to establish a joint center for entrepreneurship and innovation.
Tel Aviv University and the Tsinghua University in Beijing announced the establishment of the XIN Research Center, a $300m. joint center for innovative scientific research and education.
Haifa University and the East China Normal University in Shanghai also recently signed an agreement to establish the ECNU-UH Transnational Science and Technology Joint Research Institute.
The trend to forge academic collaborations with China began some five years ago as part of a wider government initiative to strengthen relations between the two countries.
“There was a government decision that it would be important for Israel to strengthen bilateral relations with China and India,” Emma Afterman, manager of Israel-China Academic Relations at the Council for Higher Education (CHE), told the Post.
As part of this wider effort the government viewed academia as an effective way to strengthen relations between the two countries, she explained.
“They provided the Council for Higher Education with a dedicated budget to advance certain programs – it came to us as a government decision and the CHE was entrusted to carry out this decision,” she said.
Afterman explained that prior to the decision there had been minimal academic relations between the two countries.
“There were some Chinese students studying here but we didn’t see the connection between China and Israel on a broad scale. It is only in the last three or four years that we are seeing this change in dynamic,” she explained.
The government has since dedicated some NIS 230m. to spearhead two major higher academic initiatives.
The first initiative is a scholarship program to bring Chinese students and post-doctoral students to study and conduct research in Israel.
“We have since provided over 700 scholarships to Chinese students and post-docs to study in Israel – from short-term summer courses to full BA and MA degrees,” she said.
Still, the direction of students has been mostly a one-way street as Chinese students seek to study in Israel, but fewer than 100 Israeli students have made their way annually to China to pursue academic studies.
Though, Afterman added, Chinese is now the most popular choice of foreign language study among Israeli students.
Afterman explained that the reason for this is that the Israeli higher education system is “highly regarded” by the Chinese.
“There is recognition in China that Israel has strength in certain fields that are relevant to China,” she said. “We developed scholarship programs targeted for specific fields in which Israel has a leading edge globally and that are relevant to China.”
Among the fields needed in China where Israel is thought to excel include innovation and entrepreneurship, science and technology, and desert and environmental studies.
“Chinese students who study here, when they go back home they will be in positions to influence China-Israel relationships in the future and they can become ambassadors for Israel,” she added.
The second major focus has been on research. As such, a fund was established between the Israel Science Foundation, a body funded by the Planning and Budgetary Committee of the CHE and the National Natural Sciences Foundation in China.
“Each side provides 50% of the funding and each joint project receives $100,000 a year as part of the project for over three years,” she said. “And they can receive additional grants for specific research infrastructure as well.”
Afterman explained that Israeli and Chinese researchers must collaborate ahead of time and submit joint proposals for the grants.
To date the fund has supported 59 joint projects and had over 200 applications, she said, “which shows how popular and in demand these research grants are.”
“We feel that the programs that we have initiated have had a significant impact in terms of bringing more students from China and also strengthening research connections,” Afterman said.
In addition to the two initiatives, the CHE and the Chinese Ministry of Education recently signed a declaration establishing the Israel-China 7+7 Research University Alliance.
The alliance will seek to promote research and academic cooperation between research universities in Israel and China.
According to the decision, on the Chinese side the participating universities are Tsinghua University, Peking University, Nanjing University, Renmin University of China, Shandong University, China Agricultural University and Northwest A&F University.
On the Israeli side, the participating universities are Bar-llan University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa and the Weizmann Institute of Science.
“We kick started a broader process of strengthening the relationship but at the same time the higher education institutions have also realized the potential of forging ties with China,” Afterman said.
“We see a lot of interest on the level with institutions to promote collaboration – it is happening in conjunction with our programs and in parallel,” she said.
With regard to the future, Afterman said that the CHE and PBC are currently in the process of developing a new five-year plan.
“It is a priority for us to continue to promote internationalization within the higher-education system, and China and India will certainly continue to be a focus,” she said.
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