Attending Peking University in…the UK?

Michael Distefano on why China’s most elite university is opening an Oxford campus.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, president of the Korn Ferry Institute and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, will explore the concept of agility: Who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it. 

It’s one of the oldest truisms in business: Meet your customers where they are. But if you’re a major university whose students are increasingly leaving to study abroad, what are you supposed to do—follow them around the world, building campuses?

Well, that’s exactly what China’s Peking University is doing. Sort of. Peking University, widely considered to be China’s most prestigious university, is opening a campus in Oxford, UK for its graduate business school on a site it purchased in 2016 for $11 million. The move by Peking University comes in response to an overwhelming increase in the number of Chinese students seeking to study abroad. According to data compiled by the Institute of International Education, there’s been a five-fold increase in the number of Chinese students seeking to study abroad since 2000, reaching nearly 320,000 students in 2014. There were more than 90,000 Chinese students in UK universities during the last academic year, between four and 10 times the number of students from any other country studying in the UK.

Expanding to the UK exhibits a tremendous amount of enterprise agility for a university in general, and a Chinese one specifically.  For one thing, it’s quite a twist on a trend we’re more used to seeing, of prestigious colleges from the US and UK establishing satellite campuses in the Middle East and China, while schools in emerging economies not having the clout to go the other way. New York University and Duke, for instance, have extensions in China.

Not unlike corporations, macro trends such as globalization, increased competition, digital innovation, data personalization, and the like impact universities as well. They must have as deep a real-time, unified understanding of their customers—i.e., students—as corporations do, and serve their ever-increasing demands with relevant experiences. If your core students are not where you are, business logic dictates you go to where they are. It’s no coincidence that Peking University’s move coincides with the increasing flow of Chinese investment dollars into businesses in the UK, US and elsewhere. That’s where the future growth is.

As the nature of education changes, universities are becoming more agile. Culture, governance, infrastructure, talent, and the like are all being evaluated and reshaped to build more enterprise agility, ingraining change into the fabric of the university to keep up with student demands.

The question for Peking University is how large its desire is for global expansion and how much other countries will oppose the Communist Party’s strict oversight of its curriculum. As the country’s middle class swells and its focus on academic achievement continues to send more students overseas—about 330,000 Chinese students studied in the US last year—the potential for Peking University to retain currently enrolled students and acquire new ones in new markets represents a sizable financial opportunity. Seizing it will require the agility to fundamentally transform how it does business while simultaneously balancing geo-political interests and creating an atmosphere for students that is, from both an education and cultural standpoint, at once new and familiar.