By Sun Ruifen
On June 28, around 10,000 students took part in a commencement ceremony at the main stadium of Soochow University in southeast China’s Jiangsu Province. Among the recipients of the university’s undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral degrees were 10 students from Laos who had double-majored in international economics and trade and Chinese language. In August, they are expected to attend another commencement ceremony at the Soochow University in Laos, which is located in Vientiane, the nation’s capital.
These Lao undergraduate students will receive two diplomas, one in China and one in Laos. They will be very competitive in the Lao labor market, earning a salary 50 percent higher than their peers with an equivalent diploma but without Chinese language skills.
Soochow University in Laos is the first Chinese overseas university approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education. As a pioneer of Chinese overseas higher education, the university has overcome all kinds of difficulties to become a well-known higher education institution in Vientiane. It has succeeded not only in running an overseas educational institution, but also in building a bridge between the two countries.
Starting from Scratch
Flanked by a busy street in the northwest corner of Vientiane stands a three-story French style building with a sign that reads “Soochow University in Laos” in both Chinese and Lao.
The school dates back to 2007, when the Chinese and Lao governments reached an agreement on jointly building a comprehensive development zone in Vientiane to help local economic development. The Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) was appointed the legal entity responsible for the planning of the zone. The SIP recommended adding a university to the development zone. After investigation tours to Soochow University, the Lao government officially invited Soochow University to run a higher education institution in Laos.
However, Soochow University had no prior experience in overseas education. What would the curriculum be like? Where should the campus be located? What about enrollment? Soochow University sent a task force to Laos to find answers.
“We paid great attention to the local culture and customs of Laos in our interaction with members of the Lao society,” said Wang Jiexian, former vice president of Soochow University in Laos. After communicating with the Ministry of Education and the National University of Laos, Wang and his team discovered that finance and international economics and trade are the most popular areas of study with local students, which happen to be two of Soochow University’s most popular majors.
In July 2012, Soochow University gained approval to carry out education in both finance and international economics and trade in Laos. Work on enrollment began with the university’s advertisements on Lao TV, as well as in newspapers and on billboards.
Soochow University in Laos was the first Chinese overseas university approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education. It was also the first foreign-invested university approved by the Lao government. The university officially opened on Oct. 18, 2012 with its first enrollment of undergraduate students. So far, more than 200 Lao students have concluded their undergraduate or postgraduate education with the university.
On the last page of the school’s official brochure are the following remarks: “The primary aim of overseas education is to cultivate cross-cultural local professional and technical personnel who will work in jobs that are greatly needed. What’s more, as the Belt and Road Initiative makes our economies inseparable and interdependent, education will promote cultural identity and integration. Eventually, a community of shared future will come into being with a brand new environment for human development.”
1+3 Training Model
Currently, Soochow University in Laos implements the 1+3 model, which allows undergraduate students to focus on basic courses and Chinese language in Laos during their first year and study professional courses in Chinese at Soochow University in the second to fourth year.
“We apply this training model for several reasons,” an administrator of the school told China Report ASEAN. “Construction of our own campus in Laos has not yet been completed, so we don’t have enough space to carry out all the programs we need in Laos. Additionally, three years of training in China will broaden the students’ minds and enhance their international communication abilities, which adds to the quality of our education.”
What’s more, the Lao students can gain a better understanding of China during their three years in China. Therefore, this model will continue to be used until the Vientiane campus is completed.
“It has been a valuable experience for me to have studied at both the home campus and Laos branch of Soochow University,” said Palamy Siphandone, a Soochow University undergraduate student. “In general, Lao international students in China have to study Chinese for two years and pass the Chinese proficiency exam (HSK) before entering universities. Soochow University allows us to finish a six-year task within four years. We appreciate all the efforts it has made.”
In the future, when the new campus comes into use, Soochow University in Laos will further improve the training model, be it 1+3, 2+2, or a different model entirely, to cooperate with more Chinese universities and encourage its students to communicate and interact with their peers in China.
“Our students are immediately employable upon graduation,” said Wang Dong, an instructor at Soochow University in Laos. “In Laos, students with Chinese language proficiency make a salary 50 percent higher than their peers with an equivalent diploma but without the language skills. Our students are popular with the Bank of China Vientiane branch, the Laos Saysettha Development Zone and various Chinese enterprises in Laos.”
Soochow University in Laos has received wide acclaim for its high quality education and competent management. According to a university administrator, the Lao government has provided the university with full support not only in establishment, preparation and campus land use, but also in enrollment, curriculum, educational qualifications and the approval of its postgraduate training program.
Of the university’s 2016 and 2017 graduates, all have found placement in either jobs or further education. Some work in Laos or China, while others are pursuing master’s degrees in Laos, China or other countries. Job opportunities are aplenty for the university graduates, be it in government departments, financial institutions or family businesses.
Chinese Language Training
Twenty-four-year-old Vandy Sisou works at a local company in Vientiane, earning US$200 per month. Sisou said he hopes to find work at a Chinese enterprise because that would enable him to earn more money. To enhance his prospects, he has signed up for a Chinese language training program at Soochow University in Laos.