The journey of the Zhejiang University-University of Edinburgh Institute

In a magnificent story of Transformative Education, we talked with Professors Mike Shipston and Sue Welburn about the journey of the Zhejiang University-University of Edinburgh Institute (ZJE).

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By Sophie Craik

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From green space to growing hub

In 2014, a modern architectural masterpiece began to emerge from the wetlands of Haining - a brand-new International Campus for 5000 students, which houses the Zhejiang University-University of Edinburgh Institute (ZJE). The basis behind the philosophy of the international campus and ZJE is to take the best of Eastern and Western education and build something entirely new.

“When building the campus, the Zhejiang team travelled around the best universities of the world, identifying the best of what they had observed and embedding it back in the new International Campus.”

The campus is entirely self-sufficient for research, teaching and student services. Students live and learn on site, benefiting from unique collegiate residential accommodation and truly amazing sporting and recreational facilities. The model is innovative, with the International Campus partnering with different international universities in distinct research and education domains – the partnership with Edinburgh focusses on Biomedical Sciences.

What began as a small research and teaching collaboration between Zhejiang University, China and the University of Edinburgh is now an extensive partnership in International Biomedical research. ZJE now comprises a 10,000m2 research facility, home to 40 PIs and their groups on a 200-acre campus surrounded by wetlands. It delivers 4-year dual award undergraduate programmes in Integrative Biomedical Science (the first biomedical sciences program in China) and Biomedical Informatics and a dual award PhD programme from state-of-the-art research and teaching facilities at the International Campus.

“Education is uniquely developed and delivered by staff from Zhejiang University, from staff here in Edinburgh, and importantly, by ZJE Institute academic staff, building sustainability into the model and strengthening the partnership. This allows for real innovation, and opportunity for collaboration with other international partners on site, for example, with Illinois.”

From regional ambition to reality

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Haining is a small city of less than 1 million people in Zhejiang province, China and is noted as a garden city. The city is growing rapidly and support for the International Campus projects such as ZJE from local and provincial governments has been essential. Zhejiang province is home to Ali Baba, and growth in tech and health tech is seen as crucial to regional development. The International Campus is situated adjacent to the brand-new Juanhu Lake technology park.

The location of the campus is incredibly important to the overall success of the environment.

“Zhejiang University designed the campus, Haining city built it, and we are now populating it. We have the link that we’re striving for between education, research, translation and commercialisation all in one location. The tech park is directly linked to the international campus to take advantage of both the students that it will generate and also the education and research expertise.”

There are also positive broader implications for Scotland. A delegation from Haining business park recently met with Scottish Development International and several Scottish Universities to explore business opportunites in China and in Scotland.

The campus is a well-connected hub, and with plans for two metro stops at either end of the campus there will also be a future of easy travel and connectivity to Haining City as well as the main Zhejiang University campus in Hangzhou, a city of over 10 million, in just 20 minutes.

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Promising students to future leaders

Student life at ZJE is quite different to that at other Universities in China. The residential college system, inspired by Oxford and Cambridge, means that they have access to a variety of dining options, sport facilities, music rooms, libraries, other recreational activities and academic and pastoral support. In China, students are traditionally based in dormitory accommodation, but on this campus each student has their own bedroom.

“The residential college model is exemplary, with each student being in a residential college system and having a supportive residential college tutor”.

The progressive teaching style adopted by ZJE departs from Chinese traditional approaches that has had a positive impact on students and is something Mike feels passionate about.

“When we started the first program in September 2016, the level of engagement of students within the first hour was simply amazing, to the extent now that if the students have a guest lecturer who might try to teach in the traditional style, they reject it.”

The students on the programs offered are incredibly motivated, with the vast majority of them hoping to pursue higher education following their time at ZJE, whether through an MSc or a PhD. There is also a significant cohort who wish to start their own companies as soon as they graduate or work in industry.

This year, the second undergraduate program is launching in the subject of Biomedical Informatics. Again, this program exemplifies the quest for a truly collaborative partnership, linked to the strengths of both Edinburgh and Zhejiang.

“Students are genuinely intrigued by the possibilities offered by a biomedical informatics degree.”

This year will also be the start of the dual award PhD program, which again is something unique for China as it is a four-year PhD with integrated study. There are similar programs in biomedical sciences in Edinburgh, and Mike explained that the model allows top end students to go straight into a PhD program from their Undergraduate studies. This is not only attractive to Chinese students, but also international students seeking to advance as quickly as possible.

“At the moment we have just under 10% of non-chinese national students studying on our undergraduate programmes but we are seeing an increase in interest from International Students wanting to study in China. The new PhD program that started this week with around 15 PhD students of which 25% are non-chinese nationals. By the time that programme reaches capacity that will be the single largest PhD program out of UoE.”

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Coming full circle

At the start of the partnership, potential research collaborations were the reason that a connection was made with Zhejiang. Seven years on, after all the developments that have been achieved, research collaborations are once again high on the agenda.

“We always wanted to have a strong link between research and education, the two must be linked and equal partners and together provide an incredibly powerful and sustainable platform.”

It is hoped that these research collaborations will take advantage of significant opportunities around funding and global projects, while allowing both countries to engage with one another.

Mike is proud of the work that has happened so far but believes that the real benefits are yet to be realised.

“Our first cohort are now entering their third year and will have another year before they graduate. There are several measures of success stemming from that, including the grades they achieve, and the destination of those students once they graduate. The pass rates have been terrific, in part aided by the fact that there are English tutors who are there for the students to go to at any time. It will ultimately be them completing the program and being satisfied that they got what they were looking for.”

From Zhejiang University's perspective the partnership has brought significant benefits. Over the past two years, Zhejiang has risen 50 places in the QS rankings in part through a structured approach to internationalisation that includes development of the International Campus, a driver for raising the international profile of their students and staff. For Edinburgh, Mike stresses that

“The partnership has seen the largest single academic staff recruitment in Biomedical Sciences in the last five years, it’s been a plus all round.”

ZJE is truly international. Sue Welburn explains that across the diverse ZJE staff and student body 17 different nationalities are represented. Most of the Chinese nationals contributing to ZJE are Chinese nationals who have been based in the US or Europe.

“When the people we have in Edinburgh go out to teach, now that the institute is there, they are able to develop projects in China and build new collaborations. It’s been a huge gain for us so far."

A top three Chinese university partnering with a world top 20 university seemed destined to result in great things. Indeed, through their high-level engagement in an equal partnership of research and education, used as a vehicle to develop collaborative activity as well as to create a link between education, research, translation and commercialisation, the future looks incredibly bright for the ZJE Institute, as well as for Scotland’s future relationship with China.

The Zhejiang University-University of Edinburgh Institute (ZJE) has been shortlisted for a 2018 British Business Award, championing British business in China.

Vote for ZJE by visiting the voting site:
British Business Awards - Vote for ZJE

Watch a video on the partnership: