One of China’s top universities is preparing to open a campus at the heart of British academic life, just months after President Xi Jinping called for Chinese universities to be transformed into strongholds of Communist party rule.
Peking University, an elite Beijing institution where Mao Zedong once worked as a librarian, will open a branch of its HSBC Business School in Oxford early next year, the respected financial magazine Caixin reported on Thursday.
The school is setting up camp in Foxcombe Hall which it recently purchased for a reported £8.8m. The 19th century manor was home to the eighth earl of Berkeley.
Peking University said courses at its Oxford campus, which is not connected to the University of Oxford, would focus on “professional knowledge of China’s economy, financial market and corporate management”.
Wen Hai, its dean, said Peking University had beaten off competition from three rivals, including an unnamed Oxford college, by offering a “very tempting price” that left the sellers “little room to say ‘no’’”.
Speaking to Caixin, Wen said the university had been able to do so thanks to its close ties to China’s Communist party. Those connections allowed it to “to expedite the transfer of money transfer needed for the acquisition” despite tight capital controls imposed by Beijing in an attempt to stop firms and citizens shifting large sums of money overseas.
Last summer’s vote to leave the EU, which has seen the pound plummet against the Chinese yuan, will also have helped the buyers.
Caixin said the university’s decision to expand into the “city of dreaming spires” came as Beijing pondered ambitious plans to boost the global standing of China’s top universities. Peking University, currently ranked the world’s 29th best university, had been handed billions of yuan by the government to “improve its research facilities and recruit teaching staff from top universities abroad to boost its international profile”, it said.
Prestigious British schools have set their sights on mainland China over the last 15 years with public schools including Harrow, Dulwich College and Wellington all opening spin-offs. British universities have also made moves into the mainland, where it is now possible to study at campuses operated by the University of Nottingham and the University of Liverpool. Last month the University of Leicester said it would open a campus in the north-eastern province of Liaoning.
Peking University described its Oxford campus, designed for students from both Europe and China, as “a bold step” and “an important milestone for the development of China’s higher education, given its inferior position globally over the past century”.
“It is our hope that the new initiative in Oxford will further strengthen the school’s international reputation as well as its teaching and research capabilities,” Lin Jianhua, its president, said in a statement.
The acquisition comes a few months after President Xi, whom liberal scholars accuse of presiding over a severe clampdown on freedom of expression, declared Chinese universities should be party “strongholds”.
Echoing a 1932 speech by Joseph Stalin, Xi called teachers “engineers of the human soul” whose “sacred mission” was to help students “improve in ideological quality [and] political awareness”.
Mainland China now has two universities in the world’s top 40, according to the Times Higher Education rankings. Even so, senior Communist party leaders have looked abroad to educate their offspring.
Xi Jinping’s daughter, Xi Mingze, studied at Harvard while Bo Guagua, the son of jailed party chief Bo Xilai, studied PPE at Balliol in Oxford where he built a reputation as an inveterate party animal.
“[It was like when] you take the cork out of a champagne bottle and it explodes for a bit,” Andrew Graham, the college’s former master, told the BBC in a recent series about the scandal-hit Bo family.