Brierley Penn looks at what universities are doing to build relationships with China.

New Zealand's interaction with China has up to now focused mainly on the benefits of trade and economic co-operation.

To build a deeper and more engaged relationship with China it is crucial to take a wider view.

The University of Auckland recognised this in 2006, opening the New Zealand Centre at Peking University, alongside a range of other projects in order to broaden New Zealand's academic and research relations within China.

The New Zealand Centre began as a flagship University of Auckland project, but has since morphed to operate as a partnership between Victoria, Waikato, Canterbury, Otago and Auckland universities. The Centre runs a New Zealand studies undergraduate course at Peking in one semester every year, drawing on New Zealand professors and interns operating out of Beijing. It focuses on many aspects of New Zealand culture, environment, economics, and this year, film, and is taught in a very "New Zealand" style, embracing student engagement and feedback in contrast to the more traditional Chinese method of teaching.

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"What we really want to do is to take it to a new level and to really look at how we can engage more closely with business; really thinking about New Zealand Inc and how we can align university and business interests," says Professor Jenny Dixon, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland. "But also of course, give NZ researchers at the respective universities a much higher profile in China."

The university is planning to introduce a Fellowship position for New Zealand professors based out of the Beijing centre. "We'll take several senior professors from NZ universities up to China for a short period of time, engaging with their research and stakeholder communities in China, talking about their research and its relevance to China, and then bringing back what they learn back to NZ."

Dixon hopes the initiative will be up and running by the end of the year, and envisages three-way financing from corporate sponsors, government and contributions from the partner universities.

The Centre is looking for corporate sponsorship, and considering whether to invite other New Zealand universities to join the initiative.

"We see this as very aligned with the Government's China strategy and the NZ Inc approach, which is why we've structured the fellowship in this way," said Dixon.

"So it's available to anybody who's engaged with us at the Centre, including from different universities, because we know there's a real diversity of disciplines and interests in China.

"This is a different model from what is often established, where you might just have one person going up there for a number of years as a Professor. The Australian Centre has that.

"We decided we didn't want to put all our eggs in one disciplinary basket, because across the universities in NZ there are a number of academics who are working in China or working on projects that are particularly relevant for China. We thought that we'd much rather have a series of people going up and visiting and engaging with their various communities."

The potential payoff for corporates is clear, and Dixon says there has been some positive response among the prospective sponsors they have approached.. "

"Particularly if you think about NZ's major exporters with big interests in China, universities have a lot of researchers who are doing China relevant research. And so that's the greater opportunity because this is where you see business and academic and government interests aligning."

As well as the New Zealand Centre, the University of Auckland has employed wider measures to take advantage of the China opportunity. In 2006, it was invited by the Chinese Ministry of Education to become part of the Three Brothers trilateral partnership, with Tsinghua University and Qinghai University.

This was intended to encourage co-operation and co-development, more specifically draw on the experiences of Auckland and Tsinghua universities to assist the development of Qinghai. Since the original MOU was signed, other top Chinese institutions with which Auckland has strong relationships, including the China University of Geosciences and Chinese Academy of Sciences, have come on board.

Auckland has also partnered with the Fudan University in Shanghai and the Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) based in Beijing, to establish the New Zealand Confucius Institute.

The Chinese Government has established Confucius Institutes around the world, as non-profit public initiatives aiming to promote learning Chinese language and culture in New Zealand schools, the business community and the community at large. Its aims include increasing the number of schools teaching Chinese to 120, and the number of qualified teachers by 40 per cent.

"We are deeply engaged with China on a relationship level and we know the government's preparing this strategy for China, 2030. My understanding is that in that there is reference to having stronger research relationships with China."