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Top Dutch university cancels China campus plans

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By: Agence France-Presse

A top Dutch university said Tuesday it has shelved plans to open a satellite campus in China after resistance from council members, reportedly amid concerns over possible restrictions on academic freedom.

Groningen University’s executive board on Monday “decided to cancel plans” to open a branch in Yantai in eastern Shandong province, after failing to win majority approval from the university’s council, a spokesman said.

“The board regrets this, but there is insufficient support within the council for this proposal,” Gernant Deekens told AFP after both the university’s largest personnel and student representative groups said they would blackball the plan.

Deekens rebuffed Dutch media reports citing concerns over possible meddling by Beijing after reports the campus’s most senior official would be appointed from the ranks of China’s Communist Party.

“Academic freedom is a fundamental principle to us and we have secured concrete agreements with our Chinese partners and the Chinese government in which it is guaranteed,” he said.

However, others said it had been an issue.

“There are concerns about how much academic freedom students will have on the campus,” said Tariq Sewbaransingh, chairman of the country-wide Dutch Student Union.

“One of the main concerns, but not the only one, is that the person in charge on the campus would be an official of China’s Communist Party,” he told AFP.

Henk-Jan Wondergem, who represents Groningen’s largest student organisation on the university’s council, said they voted against the plans over concerns that educational standards on the Yantai campus would not be as high as in the Netherlands.

– ‘Academic freedom a big issue ‘ –
But his organisation called Lijst Calimero, also said “academic freedom remains a big issue for us.”

“We cannot stand behind the plan to offer Dutch programmes at a university that is governed by a party secretary of the Chinese Communist Party,” the group said in a statement.

Classes in Yantai in conjunction with the China Agricultural University (CAU) had been due to start in 2019.

But the concerns also reached the Dutch parliament, with Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven calling the reports that a Communist Party member would be appointed to a top position “alarming.”

She told MPs in a letter this month that she attached “great value” to academic freedom, so “I’ll closely scrutinise any request” by Groningen University.

In 2015, Groningen, ranked one of the top 10 Dutch universities and among the top 100 worldwide, signed an agreement with the CAU and Yantai to set up a branch campus.

The deal was inked in the presence of both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Dutch King Willem-Alexander.

For now, the university will not forward the campus proposal to the minister but will discuss other ways of collaborating with the Chinese, Deekens said.