URBANA — The next branch office for the University of Illinois will likely be out east — as in Far East.
With one of the largest Chinese student populations in the United States, 65 academic partnerships with Chinese institutions, and more than 20,000 UI alumni now living in China, the UI is ready to establish a permanent presence there.
The campus also plans to strengthen its century-old ties with China through expanded research partnerships, student exchanges and internships — and ultimately capitalize financially as part of an international fundraising effort.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise just returned from a week-long trip to China, where she was invited to speak to the China 9 Consortium, the country's nine leading research universities.
She also met directly with the presidents of four universities, key government education officials and UI alumni holding high-level positions at U.S. corporations in China, including Microsoft and General Electric.
With China's prominence on the world economic and political stage, building up those connections makes sense for the university, the state and the country, UI officials said. It can help prepare UI students for an increasingly global marketplace, open up new markets for Illinois farmers and businesses, and foster mutually beneficial research, they said.
"We live in a global society," said UI President Bob Easter, who visited China every summer for more than two decades as a professor of animal sciences.
"Our university has a long history of collaboration both on the research side and the teaching side with different major universities there," Wise said. "It really helps us to touch each other in every way we possibly can."
And it's not just China. Wise recently traveled to Brazil with Gov. Pat Quinn and plans to travel to India in early December. A large delegation of Swedish faculty visited the UI over the summer to promote similar collaborations, Wise added.
The idea of establishing an office in China arose from several campus units, said K. Jimmy Hsia, professor of mechanical science and engineering and associate vice chancellor for research for new initiatives. He chaired a faculty committee that evaluated the proposal and recommended it to the chancellor. A separate proposal for an office in India is still under consideration, Hsia said.
The UI office will be located in Beijing or Shanghai, Wise said. The campus is still exploring whether to open a freestanding office, share space with state of Illinois' office in Shanghai, or partner with alumni at one of the major U.S. corporations there, she said.
The office would have several functions: to help Chinese students who are thinking about coming to Illinois, most of whom never see the campus before arriving; to connect with alumni in China; and to ensure that UI faculty who want to collaborate with Chinese colleagues have a way to get the information and support they need, Wise said.
A total of 3,850 students from China are studying at the Urbana campus this year — a 25 percent jump over last year — including 2,132 undergraduates. Together they make up 44 percent of the international students on campus. The number of Chinese undergraduates has grown dramatically in the last few years.
It's a global phenomenon, said Wolfgang Schloer, director of international programs and studies and interim associate provost for international affairs. More and more Chinese undergraduates are studying abroad, in the United States, Europe and Australia, he said.
The number of slots available at good universities in China isn't keeping pace with the number of students hoping to attend college there, he said. China's policy of limiting families to one child means extended families can pool resources to support a child's academic career, he said.
"Increasingly there is a large middle class that has the resources to put into higher education and tuition costs," he said.
Wise and others in the delegation to China said they had several missions:
— To expand research partnerships and explore new funding opportunities for UI faculty, particularly in engineering and agriculture, where faculty interest is strongest.
— To build on an academic program known as "three-plus-two," which allows students to obtain a bachelor's degree from a Chinese university and a master's degree from the UI in five years.
— To open up new internship opportunities for UI students at companies in China, including Microsoft, GE, General Motors and Abbott. This would be geared toward UI students from China, who often face limited internship opportunities, but eventually American students as well.
— To encourage more study-abroad and research opportunities for UI students in China.
— To establish better connections with the 20,000 to 30,000 UI alumni in China.
The Urbana campus has 65 formal academic partnerships with universities and institutes in Hong Kong and mainland China, from engineering and science to law and music. Most involve student exchanges or joint educational programs, but some are research partnerships with institutes at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hsia said. Individual UI faculty also collaborate with Chinese colleagues on research projects.
The chancellor would like to expand those collaborations, but administrators emphasized that the effort has to be built from the ground up. The idea would be to examine faculty research strengths, identify key areas of research that are important globally, and then explore potential funding in both countries, Hsia said.
The research sector in China is growing rapidly as the government offers incentives to lure back students who receive their doctorates in the United States, Schloer said. UI graduates who end up teaching at Chinese universities can help foster productive research collaborations, he said, and the UI has faculty who graduated from Chinese universities, such as Hsai.
The campus started experimenting with the three-plus-two program about five years ago, and it's grown in popularity, said Associate Chancellor Pradeep Khanna, who accompanied Wise on her trip to China. Students pay their own tuition — more than double the in-state rate — and must attend a Chinese university with a comparable curriculum and quality. They are able to earn a UI degree more efficiently, allowing the UI to attract "the best and the brightest," Khanna said.
Hsia said the UI already has three-plus-two programs in mechanical engineering and civil/environmental engineering with Tsinghua University and Zhejiang University, and Zhejiang has a third in agricultural engineering.
In the other direction, China is the fourth most-popular destination for UI students who study abroad, after Spain, Italy and France, Schloer said. Still, just 161 students went to China in 2010-11, for an academic year or less, he said.
Among the hurdles are language and students' unfamiliarity with China, Khanna said. But Chinese universities are eager to host more American students, officials said.
Schloer wants to significantly increase the percentage of UI students studying around the world, and believes the number of students headed to China, whether to study or do research, could double in the next three to four years.
"China is just so important for us in so many ways," Schloer said. "We want to build on the connections we already have and create more opportunities, not just for regular study abroad but also for research stays and internships."
For UI students to be competitive in the future they need to gain experience in China and other emerging economic powerhouses, such as India or Brazil, Hsia said. Several of the U.S. companies in China were "very interested" in setting up internship arrangements for UI students, he said.
The connections with alumni and corporations could pay off for the UI in terms of fundraising or research support, too, administrators said.
Wise said the campus hasn't done a good job of connecting with alumni in China. At the receptions she attended in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the majority of UI alumni had graduated within the last five years.
"We have alums who are very successful and are really very loyal and dedicated to us and would love to have the opportunity to give," said Wise, who has stressed the key role international fundraising will play in coming years. "We just need to tell our story, and learn more about where their passions are."
The growth in the UI's international student population has been a sore spot for state legislators in past years, though Easter heard none of that criticism during his most recent trips to Springfield.
That may reflect a growing awareness that the world is changing, and that the state no longer provides the biggest share of the UI's operating budget, Easter said.
The undergraduate experience at the UI must reflect international diversity so the next generation is prepared for a global economy, he said.
"We continue to have as our primary mission the land-grant mission of serving the state of Illinois," Easter said.
Reasons for enrollment
Why are so many Chinese students drawn to the Urbana campus?
For one thing, the University of Illinois is highly regarded in fields that appeal to students from China — engineering, science and business — although they study other disciplines too, said Wolfgang Schlor, UI interim associate provost for international affairs.
But the connection goes back more than a century.
At the end of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, a peasant uprising against foreigners in China, the country's rulers agreed to pay reparations to foreign governments, including the United States. Former UI President Edmund James persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to sponsor a bill in Congress to put the money toward a scholarship program for Chinese students to study in the United States.
From 1909 to 1929, the program gave about 1,300 students the means to attend universities in the United States. More than a quarter of all Chinese students who came to the U.S. between 1910 and 1950 chose to attend the UI. The connection was interrupted when Mao Zedong came to power in the communist revolution but resumed with the reopening of China to the West in the 1970s, Schlor said.
Money from the reparations also established the Tsinghua School, a preparatory school in Beijing for Chinese students intending to study at American universities. It later expanded to a full university.
A Chinese student and 1914 UI architecture graduate who had received one of the Boxer Rebellion scholarships, Zhang Jun, was later named resident architect for Tsinghua and modeled many of its buildings after the UI campus. The Grand Auditorium, completed in 1920, bears a striking resemblance to Foellinger Auditorium.
"In its day, it was the largest auditorium of its kind at a university in China, and could seat the entire faculty, staff and student body for school assemblies," according to Tsinghua University's website.