The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the first joint venture university in China, has removed a foreign academic from its management board for being critical of Communist party-backed initiatives.
The management shuffle marks a setback for joint venture universities — legally independent institutions 49 per cent held by a foreign university — which for years have operated in tenuous conditions as China’s Communist party seeks to exert more influence on educational institutions.
The academic, Stephen Morgan, had served as Nottingham Ningbo’s associate provost since 2016. The party objected to the renewal of his contract with the university after he wrote an online essay critical of the 19th party congress, a top meeting of Communist party officials held every five years, according to two people familiar with the situation.
The post had been written for the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute’s online magazine Asia Dialogue. It was not a site owned by Nottingham Ningbo, the Chinese branch campus in Zhejiang province, near Shanghai, which has an enrolment of 7,800 mostly domestic Chinese students.
However, six months after publication of the essay, Communist party officials at Nottingham Ningbo sought to remove Mr Morgan from his management positions, saying the essay embarrassed the university. Mr Morgan had also been a vocal critic of broader party-backed initiatives, such as blocking the import of texts authorities deemed sensitive, according to one of the people.
Mr Morgan confirmed that he no longer had a seat on the university’s management board but remained on the faculty. He declined to comment further but said periodic renewal of management board is a regular occurrence.
“We are making a number of changes to our management board at University Nottingham Ningbo China, as we do every year when contracts expire or we recruit new talent,” the University of Nottingham said in response to questions.
The removal of Mr Morgan comes three years after Nottingham abruptly shut its School of Contemporary Chinese Studies in the UK, just as its students were preparing to sit exams. The decision, which came directly from the university’s executive board in April 2016, led to the departure of Steve Tsang, an outspoken professor who was head of the school.
In 2003, China’s education ministry approved new regulations allowing for Sino-foreign joint venture universities in an effort to import overseas educational know-how and promote reform.
Nottingham was the first UK university to set up a campus in the country, opening its Ningbo joint venture in 2004. More than 2,000 such joint-venture programmes have been established since then.
However, under President Xi Jinping, tightening ideological control has already swept up wholly Chinese universities, which have increased controls over foreign textbooks and introduced a greater number of party-backed courses and research institutes with subjects such as “Xi Jinping thought”.
Signs that this control has slowly extended to joint ventures are increasing. Two years ago, China put a moratorium on approvals for new, legally independent joint venture campuses, according to education experts.
There are seven such campuses in China including Nottingham Ningbo and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Foreign universities are now able to receive approval only for new joint venture institutes or single-subject joint venture programmes housed within Chinese campuses.
Last year, the Financial Times reported that the education ministry and the party’s Organisation Committee, which oversees appointments to top posts, issued regulations requiring the installation of party units at foreign-funded universities and that party officials be given a seat on their management boards.
However, joint venture administrators say the rules have not yet been formally implemented after they pushed back. In practice, however, most joint venture branch campuses have operated since their founding with a party secretary from their partner Chinese university on their management boards.
Additional reporting by Henry Sanderson in London
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