China and Macedonian higher education: Influence focused on the state universities

Published on:

The Chinese influence in higher education in North Macedonia is focused primarily on a few state universities in the country, with ongoing cooperation throughout the years that resulted in an exchange of students and professors and by signing agreements and memoranda of understanding. The champions of this cooperation are the following three universities: the oldest – Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, Goce Delchev University, and Saint Paul the Apostle University.

One of the forms of exerting the Chinese “soft power” influence in North Macedonia is in the field of higher education specifically. The cooperation of some of the Macedonian universities with China has been strengthening throughout the years and the data available indicates that the number of students from North Macedonia who went to study in China is increasing, along with the number of students studying the Chinese language through the Confucius Institute in Skopje.

The research ”Understanding the tools, narratives and impact of Chinese “soft power” in North Macedonia” by author Ana Krstinovska, published by ESTIMA and Konrad Adenauer Foundation towards the end of last year specifies that probably the single most important strategy for strengthening Chinese soft power in North Macedonia was the establishment of the Confucius Institute in Skopje within the oldest and most popular university – “Ss. Cyril and Methodius”, in 2013.

ESTIMA’s research has also shown that China has been providing scholarships for Macedonian students for more than 20 years.

“Initially starting with 1-2, at present the number of scholarships reaches approximately 10 per year and, according to the words of an education ministry representative, they are always used up. Scholarships are provided in cooperation between the Macedonian Ministry of Education and Science and the Chinese Ministry of Education, specifically the China Scholarship Council. Occasionally the Chinese Ministry of Commerce or the Confucius Institute provide additional opportunities to study or travel in China”, specifies ESTIMA’s research.

The brief analysis of the topic by Avery Edwards titled “The Chinese Non-business Influence in the Balkans“, indicates the existence of the Confucius Institute in Skopje, North Macedonia. This analysis stresses that Chinese influence in the Balkans is constantly growing, especially in the institutions dealing with culture, education, policies and journalism directed towards making the Balkan countries dependent on China.

On 11 April 2023, trying to acquire additional data on the Chinese influence on Macedonian higher education, sent requests for free access to public information in accordance with the Law on Free Access to Public Information to 21 Macedonian state and private universities, as well as from the Ministry of Education and Science. (MES)

Until the legally determined deadline for delivery of the requested information by the institutions, received replies from a total of 17 private and state universities in the country, while four higher education institutions did not respond at all (High Professional School Faculty for Business Economy – Skopje, European University – Skopje, MIT University – Skopje and the Faculty for Islamic Sciences – Skopje).

Confucius Institute only at UKIM
The Ministry of Education and Science (MES) explained that the cooperation in the field of science and technology is based on the Agreement on Scientific and Technical Cooperation between the Macedonian and the Chinese governments signed on 7th March 1995.

This Agreement enabled the implementation of scientific and research project activities between both countries but also opened an opportunity for concluding direct Memoranda of Understanding between Macedonian universities and counter-institutions in China.

“In 2020/2021, 38 projects applied on the call for scientific and technological cooperation, while the Joint Science and Technology Cooperation Commission between the RN Macedonia and PR China decided to fund 20 joint Macedonian-Chinese projects”, informed the MES.

We received most of the data related to the concluded memoranda, agreements, and other documentation from the universities themselves. The available data shows that state universities in the country are most involved when it comes to cooperation with China in the last few years. As specified by Ana Krstinovska’s and Avery Edwards’s researches, the University Ss. Cyril an Methodius (UKIM) from Skopje is the only higher education institution that has established a Confucius Institute therein.

UKIM informed that the Confucius Institute had 10-15 attendants over 18 years of age of the courses in the Chinese language who also participated in a two-week summer camp in Chengdu within the period 2015 – 2019. The camp was organized by the partner-organization Southwest University for Finance and Economy.

“The course participants had the opportunity to attend classes of Chinese language, Chinese history, culture, arts, cultural-historical monuments and to get acquainted closer with the contemporary Chinese culture and society”, specifies UKIM’s response.

UKIM also added that towards the end of every academic year, a national qualifications competition for the international Chinese language competition “Chinese Bridge” is organized. The winner in the student category has the opportunity to present our country and university on the international finals that take place in China.

Within the period 2015 – 2019, the winner in the student category participated in the international competition. One of the awards given to the finalists is a one-term scholarship for any of the Chinese universities.

“Due to the COVID-19 restriction measures and the limitation to travel to PR China from 2020 – 2022, all activities and exchanges with PR China were implemented online”, UKIM explained, adding that due to the lifting of the restriction measures in March 2023, the summer camp with a physical presence in Chengdu, along with the finals of the international competition with a physical presence will take place in China.

According to the research “Understanding the tools, narratives and impact of Chinese “soft-power” in North Macedonia”, the number of students of Chinese language organized by the Confucius Institute within UKIM increased from 60 in the first year to 562 in the academic year 2020-2021, along with the establishment of the Confucius classrooms in different cities country-wide.

“The Institute provides free-of-charge lessons in the Chinese language for various types of audiences, starting from preschool children to adults, including university students and professionals from different companies working with China”, states the research.

Nevertheless, the operation of the Confucius Institute is not the only activity that connects UKIM, as the largest national higher education institution, with China.

The replies received from UKIM clarify that the development of the Macedonian Studies abroad is spreading towards China, with the establishment of the Department of Macedonian language, literature and culture at the Foreign Studies University in Beijing.

“The selected lecturer who delivered online lessons this year will soon travel to Beijing in PR China in order to perform physical teaching from September 2023”, explain from UKIM.

UKIM has signed five cooperation agreements with Chinese universities – with the Southwest University for Finance and Economy in Chengdu, including an Agreement for Cooperation in the field of Science and Education. The Confucius Institute was established as part of the cooperation stemming from this agreement back in 2013.

In addition, in 2016 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Normal University in Beijing, providing for exchange of teaching staff, students and joint conferences, while in 2018 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the University of Foreign Studies in Beijing, stipulating exchange of teaching and administrative staff, as well as students, academic material and information, including science and research cooperation in areas of common interest.

However, UKIM also informed that it does not have data available regarding the number of other university staff-members who have traveled on study visits to PR China.

Most state universities cooperate with China
Significant cooperation with China is realized by the Goce Delchev University (UGD) from Shtip. According to the information received through the application for free access to public information, the Shtip University has signed four agreements, memoranda or other documents for cooperation with Chinese universities, research centers or with the Chinese Government. Those are the agreements with the “Wuhan” University of Technology from the province Hubei, with the Institution for Agricultural Cultures from the Chinese Academy for Agricultural Sciences, with the Chengdu University and the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan.

Regarding the student exchange, three students from Shtip University attended a two-week study visit in China as part of the program “Huawei Seeds for Future”. Students from the Contemporary Dance Program had two performances in 2015 and 2017 in China, while in the period September 2018 – July 2019 a student from the Musical Arts Faculty was awarded a one-year scholarship for the Hangzhou University in China.

Concerning the study visits of the teaching staff from the Goce Delchev University (UGD) to China, most of the activities were implemented within the period 2016 – 2018. In the period 2015 – now, 21 various activities were implemented, such as: two professors participated in Master Workshops on Contemporary Dance, one professor delivered training at the Shenyang University of Chemical Technology, and one professor from the Computer Science Faculty had a study visit in Ningbo.

Some of the information received from UGD was related to six study visits of teaching staff from the Computer Science Faculty, Agricultural Science Faculty and Medical Science Faculty at the University of Shanxi, Shenyang and Ningbo in the period 2016 – 2019. At the same time, in 2017 a visit and lecture was delivered at the University of Ningbo.

Significant cooperation with China was accomplished by the Information Science and Technology University “St. Paul the Apostle” from Ohrid. In the period from 2015 up to date, a total of nine agreements, memoranda and competitions for projects were implemented with Chinese universities.

Such were: the Memorandum for Academic Exchange of Teaching and Research Staff with Gansu Academy for Social Sciences (2015), the Cooperation Agreement with Lanzhou Jiaotong University (2015), the Memorandum of Cooperation with the City University of Hong Kong (2016), the Competition for funding joint Macedonian-Chinese scientific research projects for the period 2016-2017 with the title “Big Data, Distributed Storage Systems, Cloud Computing, Security, Malicious Intruder”, the Memorandum of Understanding with the City College of Vocational Technology Wuxi (2017) and Memorandum of Understanding with the Shanghai University of Medicine (2022).

Apart from these memoranda and agreements related, primarily, to the academic exchange of teaching and research staff, a donor agreement with Lanzhou Jiaotong University for equipping a computer laboratory of the University in Ohrid was implemented in 2019. In 2018-2019, a project for co-funding a joint Macedonian-Chinese scientific research project titled “How best universities manage innovations? Summary of best practices of managing innovation processes and model for creating sustainable innovation generations of university strategies? had been implemented“

Three students from this Ohrid university had a study visit in China through a call published by the Ministry of Information Technology and Administration and the company Huawei.

“This program is an opportunity to reward the five best students from the ICT faculties in the Republic of Macedonia,” is what St. Paul the Apostle University explained.

Two professors from this Ohrid university were on temporary visits to China in the period 2015 up to date.

By applying the instrument for free access to public information, received information from St. Kliment Ohridski University from Bitola, Mother Teresa University from Skopje as well as the State University in Tetovo.

St. Kliment Ohridski University and Mother Teresa University did not have student exchanges with Chinese universities. The Bitola University had signed a Memorandum of Cooperation for establishing an incubator for youth innovation and entrepreneurship with the Global Institute for Silk Road Studies, from the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China.

The Mother Teresa University from Skopje had not concluded agreements, memoranda or other documents for cooperation with Chinese institutions, and from 2015 up to date only one professor stayed temporarily in China.

Tetovo State University informed that it did not have students nor science and teaching staff from the higher education institution visiting China in an exchange program or in any other form in the period 2015 up to date. The University in Tetovo has not concluded any agreements, memoranda or other forms of documents for cooperation with Chinese universities, research centres or China’s government.

The private universities cooperate with China occasionally received replies from most of the private higher education institutions in the country. Unlike the Macedonian state universities, private universities cooperate significantly less with China, judging from the answers received upon our request for free access to public information.

The South East European University from Tetovo signed only one agreement with the Lanzhou Jiaotong University for the exchange of students and teaching staff, participation in transnational projects as well as an exchange of good practices back in 2018. Only two members of the academic staff from this Tetovo university have been on a study visit in China up to date.

From 2015 up to date, the University American College from Skopje had sent just one professor on a temporary stay at the University in Beijing. This University had not concluded any agreements, memoranda or other documents for cooperation with Chinese universities and institutions.

Regarding the cooperation with institutions from China, in 2016 the University EUROPA PRIMA was the partner institution in the organization of the Cinematography Festival of Central and Eastern Europe in Ningbo, as part of the festival for cinematography of Southeast Europe.

The answers received indicate that no cooperation with Chinese institutions, in terms of exchange of students and academic staff with universities in China, has been accomplished, nor have any agreements, memoranda or other cooperation documents been concluded by: the International Balkan University from Skopje, Euro College from Kumanovo, International University Vision from Gostivar, International Slavic University “Gavrilo Romanovich Derzhavin” from Sveti Nikole, Business Academy Smilevski – BAS from Skopje, University for Tourism and Management from Skopje, American University of Europe – FON from Skopje and the International University from Struga.

MES: 40 students on Master and PhD studies in China in the last eight years
The Ministry of Education and Science (MES) informed that 40 Macedonian students completed their Master’s and PhD studies or attended a year-long specialization in China for learning Chinese language and literature in the period 2015 up to date. Additional information on undergraduate studies was not submitted.

Every year this ministry announces on its website a call for awarding scholarships to Macedonian students on the basis of a Note received from the Chinese Embassy in Skopje.

Concerning the scholarship opportunities offered by China to Macedonian students for the universities and research centers in the country, MES explained that several other calls were published in the course of the year.

The Cooperation Agreement between Macedonian and Chinese ministries of educaton was signed on 5 December 2007. In the beginning, the Chinese side had an annual quota of 5 scholarships for Macedonian students for undergraduate and graduate studies as well as for specializations in China. The call published in the academic year 2019/2020 awarded a total of 22 scholarships for studying or specializing at Chinese state universities.

A call was published for the academic year 2019-2020 for awarding 75 one-year research scholarships for students of all UNESCO member-states through the joint scholarship program of UNESCO and China – The Great Wall, stated the MES for

In addition, Chinese Trade Ministry sponsored a Master and PhD Study Program on state universities in China for Macedonian students in the academic year 2022/2023 for a duration of 1 to 3 years. A year before that, a call for awarding three scholarships for graduate public health studies by Vanke School of Public Health within Tsinghua University was published .

Nevertheless, all of the above-noted data received from the Macedonian Ministry of Education and Science, as well as from the universities, indicate that Chinese influence in the Macedonian higher education area shows an upward tendency in the last few years. In that respect, one should also bear in mind the indications of the Global Soft Power Index, that identifies and tests main soft power narratives by measuring the level of impact on public opinion of those narratives through seven categories. The category education and science is one of those categories measured.