Edinburgh Global

How we built our presence in China, with Nini Yang

In December 2017 we said goodbye to Dr Nini Yang, who for thirteen years has worked at the University of Edinburgh, leading the first of the University’s overseas offices.

On its launch, the aim of the China Office was partnership development, profile-raising and building the reputation of the University of Edinburgh across China. A significant part of this role included co-ordinating high-level visits and events which would link Edinburgh’s academic staff and senior management with key contacts across China.

We talked to Nini about how the China Office was originally set up and her experiences of working for the University whilst being based in China and being the first member of staff based permanently overseas.

Could you tell me how the China Office was developed?

"The first outreach work began in 2000 when I made a few trips to China for Professor Stephen Hillier who was then Director of PG Studies and International Relations at CMVM. (Professor Hillier later became the VP International for the UoE from 2008-2014.) My role involved making connections with colleagues in the Higher Education sector in China. Then I was appointed Director of the China Office in 2004 and we launched the office in 2005."

"Initially, we focussed on strengthening or initiating links with key universities that excelled in medicine, and made formal agreements with China Agricultural University, Xiamen University, Nankai University, Peking University Health Sciences Centre, Fudan University and Guangzhou Medical University."

"We also talked to the Chinese Ministry of Health. The launch party we gave for the office was very high profile – it was attended by the then-Chinese Minister of Education, and Presidents of top tier Chinese universities like Peking, Tsinghua and Beihang. We also had the British and the European Ambassadors to China in attendance. It attracted a great deal of attention locally, and provided an opportunity for our staff to make some useful alliances."

"I think it signalled to Chinese partners that the University took its engagement with China seriously."

So that was the groundwork for future collaboration?

"Yes, partnership development can work at different speeds. Sometimes you can link interested parties on either side and formal agreement quickly forms. Other work takes longer, but if you look at what happened from 2005 to 2014, you can see the impact. During that time the University gained up to 60 Chinese University partners from the best institutions. We engaged with 10 Chinese Ministries and about a dozen major organisations relating to science, technology and research funding too."

"We set up really important partnerships in subject areas that were key for Edinburgh, like joint research collaborations in Systems Biology with Tianjin University, the Medical Education Alliance with Guangzhou Medical University and the Low Carbon Research Centre with Peking University."

"When Edinburgh College of Art merged with the University of Edinburgh we supported the development of joint ventures like the Shanghai International College of Fashion in partnership with Donghua University."

"As TNE (Transnational Education) was becoming a significant force in HE, our UoE-Zhejiang University Joint Institute in Biomedical Sciences was a significant development for us. But there were many joint education programs that we helped to establish too - in GeoScience, Engineering, Chemistry, Informatics, Law, Medicine, Management, which cover all levels of study."

Nini has been instrumental in raising the University’s profile in China. I am delighted that our Chinese student numbers have quadrupled and that we have partnership agreements with all the front ranked Chinese universities.  Nini has been very attentive and I have enjoyed various special events such as the Beijing Olympics reception, Hong Kong General Council celebrations, honorary degree ceremonies and the Edinburgh-Peking Day.

Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, 2002-2017

What do you think has been the impact of the UoE engaging with China in this way – via an office based in country?

"Politically, it's very important to have an office to bridge the University and China, to receive the local policies and intelligence first hand. It helps to have someone who can translate cultural difference as much as the language. Having the office in China allows the University of Edinburgh to really feel the pulse of the Chinese market. The University’s presence was welcomed by China too. With local collaboration and support the University has promoted itself nation-wide and really increased its recognition across China."

Who did it impact most, students or research staff?

"I think both benefitted. My role did not encompass student recruitment at all, but our recognition in China and development of joint programmes has undoubtedly influenced recruitment. Our student intake has increased significantly since 2005. The fact that we have partnerships with top tier institutions across China really helps our recognition, reputation and our research development, plus it’s a great advantage that our research links are varied in terms of disciplines and we have links in most major subject areas and across China, which means there is scope and scale to our impact."

What would you say has changed in the University’s work with China over the last 13 years?

"When the China Office was set up in 2005, it was facing a vast country without any ready-made examples to guide the University. Exploration of partnerships and collaborations was gradual and cautious at first. This first major project taught me that it is very much bi-party process. The University may have a big name but it does not necessarily give us an easy pass. Each attempt to set up a collaboration was time consuming - understanding local ways of doing things, and participating in multiple negotiations, discussions and some lively debates!"

"In all this I learned that the process of preparation on both sides is essential. The role of the China Office was to facilitate by helping the two parties understand each other, not only linguistically but also the subtle cultural differences and the expectations."

"Each collaboration or joint program we have created has its own unique status but on the whole, we’ve certainly increased our experience across the institution in terms of working with Chinese partners, and it’s been well worth the investment of time."

It was a great journey together with Nini, starting from the 5 or 6 partnerships we had 10 years ago, we are now working with 50+ universities. This would not have been possible without Nini’s expertise, personal networks and full commitment to advance our position in China. Nini has been a great colleague and excellent advisor, and it was a great pleasure to work with her, especially for her great sense of humour, when things went differently than expected, as it tends to do occasionally in cross-cultural endeavours.

Professor Natascha GentzFRSE Assistant Principal (China)

What has been the most memorable event or activity?

"There were a lot of high points over that length of time, I couldn’t say just one thing was the best. Although it’s hard to beat the UoE Beijing Graduation Ceremony."

"In those days the graduation ceremony in McEwan Hall was not recorded or live streamed. It was expensive to travel to the UK and tickets for the graduation ceremony were limited, so many family members missed the opportunity to see their sons and daughters graduate. At that time the highest numbers of international students we received were from China, so we held a 3-day event to duplicate the full University of Edinburgh graduation ceremony in Beijing. Family and extended family could attend. It was a huge event - 2000 guests including 200 Edinburgh graduates, 800 parents, relatives and friends at the Ceremony."

"We held in the Chinese State Guest House (which is China’s equivalent to Buckingham Palace) with graduation ceremony gowns and Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea presiding over staff from UoE. We wanted it to be an identical programme and experience to the one in Bristo Square except in Beijing. It was a grand event with guests of honour like the Chinese Minister of Education, Beijing Vice Major, 19 European and American Ambassadors to China and 19 Chinese Universities’ Presidents. It made a huge splash with the local media - some 26 Chinese media outlets attended, so we got some excellent coverage. As you can imagine, it took some organisation, but the event really showed Edinburgh’s commitment to its Chinese students and alumni, and it was extremely well received, generating a real sense of community."

"I also organised a Beijing Olympic Games celebration in the British Embassy in 2008. It was a unique event and therefore also attracted media interest. The then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the British Olympic Team, 28 Ambassadors to China, and 40 Presidents of UoE’s Chinese partner universities, plus 400 of our alumni came along. It really gave us the edge on other UK institutions as none of our UK competitors did anything similar, and the buzz around the Olympic Games really made it memorable."

"It’s also memorable to me that I played a part in selecting who should partner with us when setting up the Confucius Institute for Scotland. Based on research, I recommended Fudan University, and they did end up becoming our partner. Our status as the first Scottish (and one of the first institutions in the UK) to have a Confucius Institute within the University really helped to further establish the University’s reputation in China, and I am proud that the China Office was involved."

"Apart from that I am pleased to have used my contacts in Chinese Government Ministries and funding agencies in China and the UK to facilitate the University making various successful funding bids over the years – across the Colleges and across levels of study. Again, I think this work enhanced the University’s academic reputation in China and strengthened our academic capability enormously."

"I can certainly say that it’s been a varied job which generated a huge amount of interesting work!"

regional centre staff
Some of the Regional Centre staff pictured in Edinburgh for a staff Away Day in 2016. From left to right: Dalinda Perez Alvarez Rodriguez, (Latin America Regional Centre), Bhagyashri Salunkhe, Amrita Sadarangani and Kharishma Captain (South Asia Regional Centre), Joanna Storrar (previously the Director of the North America Regional Centre, who left the UoE in 2017) and Dr Nini Yang.

Activities in East Asia

Since launching in China, the University went on to open what we now call ‘Regional Centres’ in South Asia, Latin America, North America and South East Asia. The Regional Centre located in China has a remit to work across all of East Asia.