Point of View: ‘Don’t be a wallflower at China’s debutante ball

While forming partnerships with the Chinese education sector may be easy, making them productive is not, argues Matt Durnin

Ten years ago, I was first introduced to education partnerships in China when I accompanied a mid-tier US university to a signing of an agreement with one of China’s top universities.

Relatively new to international work, it was a coup for the US side. On the car ride to the event, the US university’s administrators and professors buzzed with excitement about the possible synergies in teaching and research.

After the signing ceremony, I found one of the Chinese institution’s deans, shuffling along the buffet, looking politely bored. Trying to make small talk, I asked how many of these partnerships his side had signed.

‘Around 50,’ he said, before wearily adding, ‘this year.’

Unsurprisingly, that particular partnership never produced anything beyond a press release on the university’s website.

Over the past decade working in China I’ve seen this pattern play out innumerable times across a dozen industries. Partnerships are formed, publicised and then promptly dissolve into the ether. Much like the university in the story above, foreign partners tend to overestimate what they bring to the table and underestimate the scale of China’s ambitions.

Let’s start with an obvious point: China is big. It already boasts the world’s second-largest consumer market and its middle class is projected to swell to over 550 million by 2022, based on estimates by McKinsey & Co.

Moreover, Chinese companies and institutions have ambitions to grow beyond the domestic market to become global leaders. In education for example, China has a goal of hosting 500,000 foreign HE students by the year 2020, which may make it a net importer of international students.

The opportunities are indeed tremendous; the mistake, however, comes from thinking that you can have any of them to yourself.

Just as the US university found out, your would-be partners in China often suffer an embarrassment of attention from other parties. This is China’s moment and every player in every industry across the world knows it. So how can you stand out among the crowd?

In my experience, there are two options. First think small. Very small. Focus your efforts on a single partnership, limit activities to your areas of core competence and constrain them to a manageable geographic scope. China is not a monolith. It is comprised of dozens of distinct markets, each involving different stakeholders and unique strategies.

Larger ambitions, meanwhile, require a rethinking of collaboration. Unless you are a Fortune 500 company, big partnerships in China will require broad collaboration. This means expanding the offer beyond what you as a single institution can provide, leveraging the strengths of industry and academic partners to offer excellence in areas where you can’t. This approach is by no means easy. It requires time to find the right partners and significant work to build trust amongst them. It demands tireless coordination and alignment of purpose. For the impatient, this may seem like too high a price. But for those tired of playing the part of wallflower in China’s debutante ball, there is no better way to join the dance.