Chinese Colleges Are Trying to Look Like the Ivy League

Can architecture alone give a campus an air of Western prestige?

Over the next few weeks, American undergraduates flooding back to campus will take part in a university tradition even older than drinking from Solo cups or inhaling stale pizza: They’ll be setting up homes inside the rock-hewn walls of Gothic buildings that look like Medieval castles, retrofitted for serious scholars. Many of these buildings were designed a century ago, when young American colleges—desperate to assert their legitimacy—went on a knock-off binge. They cloned British universities’ libraries, cathedrals, quads, sculptures and even dress codes in the hopes of recreating the feel (and prestige) of Oxford and Cambridge.

These days, colleges in China are copying America’s copycat approach. There’s a university in Shanghai where faux English manor houses sit side-by-side with dorms modeled on Britain’s half-timbered homes. To the north, Hebei province boasts a university inspired by Harry Potter’s Hogwarts—itself fashioned on the traditional collegiate Gothic. Even specific colleges have been cloned. The University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus features replicas of the U.K. school’s iconic landmarks, flanked by British gardens.

Elsewhere, Chinese developers hired the California-based Dahlin Group to design a high school resembling Stanford University. The theme was “generated by the developers’ love of the campus and the connotation of the highest quality of education,” says Dahlin Group partner Chip Pierson.

Certain campuses, like Ningbo’s Nottingham, are joint ventures between foreign schools and local administrators, who’ve used architecture to link their outpost with the mother ship. Others are located in second and third-tier cities—China’s less cosmopolitan but still-humming metropolises—at institutions that lack the name recognition of a school like Beijing’s top-rated Tsinghua University.

Yet not even Tsinghua is duplitecture-free. Its campus features a twin of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, which is itself a reimagining of Rome's Pantheon. Tsinghua's copy-of-a-copy dates back to the first wave of collegiate Gothic that swept China in the early 20th century when foreign missionaries embarked on an architecture spree, setting up universities that transposed the look and feel of places like Cambridge and Yale.

But the recent turn toward revival architecture has been largely driven by the Chinese themselves: Looking like the best schools in the world seems, to many, like the natural first step toward becoming one of the best schools in the world. It’s a “dress for the ranking you want, not the ranking you have” mentality, and the historic styles serve to make newer schools seem as though they’re bastions of a time-honored academic tradition.

All those arches and columns seem to be working. Laishan Lee, a 22-year-old from Hong Kong who is studying at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, says her school’s British buildings make her “feel the prestige" because it seems more advanced.

“In China, our culture really, really admires the western cultures,” Lee adds. Setting foot on Nottingham’s campus, “you feel like, ‘Oh, it’s different—you are in a higher-class society than the others.’”

The classical designs not only brand the institution, but offer the student body a taste of the overseas college experience, which is in high demand. The number of Chinese pupils enrolled in American schools more than doubled between 2008 and 2013 to over 235,000 people, according to the Institute of International Education. The number who apply and don’t get in is no doubt far greater. As Businessweek recently reported, one successful college consultant who works extensively with Asian clients and has offices in China can earn as much as $1.1 million for getting a single student into a top-ranked American school.

But for those who fail to gain one of these coveted spots, a place like Hebei University can deliver something that at least feels a bit like undergrad life abroad. It’s a taste of the Ivy League that doesn’t require leaving China.

“For sure [Nottingham's architecture] gives me more of an understanding of foreign culture and environments,” says Lee.

Another Nottingham student, 20-year-old Yangluan Luo, says that during the summer, Chinese high schoolers take classes at her university's campus because “they want students to experience this kind of architecture and culture.”

But this enthusiasm for foreign architecture is also a sign of something deeper: a shift toward what's seen as a more Western approach to education. From the 1950s, under Mao, through the early years of China’s political reforms in the 1980s, Chinese schools were meant to support the Communist Party’s revolutionary ideals and were closely supervised by the state. Bureaucrats imposed a rigid and centralized approach to schools' curricula—a mindset reflected in the imposing Soviet buildings common on campuses at the time.

In China’s current push to become the world’s superpower, such methods have given way to practices that more closely resemble those at Harvard or USC. Teachers working in China say there is a prevailing sense among parents and government officials that the nation’s universities are still playing catch-up to their counterparts in the West and must quickly learn how those institutions teach.

In 2001, China passed a set of reforms designed to prioritize “student-centered pedagogy,” emphasizing analytical thinking over memorization and discussion rather than transmission, among other changes. China’s universities have also aggressively recruited foreign faculty to set up new programs, part of a national “Thousand Foreign Experts” initiative to lure skilled individuals to Chinese businesses and schools. Professors with experience teaching in China say they’ve seen a notable change over the past several years. There are more seminars, smaller classes, and more discourse and debate among their pupils—all contributing to a campus environment more similar to what they’d find overseas.

“There is definitely a trend of bringing more Western education ideas and practices [into colleges],” says Nini Suet, founder of Beijing-based Shang Learning, which offers leadership and skills training to Chinese students seeking to go abroad. “A lot of Chinese parents, they don't have a lot of faith in the pure Chinese educational system. They want their kids to receive the best education and to them the best education is a Western education.”

Gothic and revival styles can be one way to broadcast a school’s embrace of foreign ideas and practices—even though the actual changes within the classrooms may be far subtler than the over-the-top architecture implies.

For Luo, seeing the replica of Nottingham's clock tower on her Ningbo campus made her believe in the school’s commitment to a more British system.

“The first time I went to the university, I thought, ‘It’s real,’” says Luo. “Not just that people talk about that British system at the school, but that yes, I can see it. I can feel it. Everything is modern. I can see the integration between Chinese and U.K. culture.”

She explained this over Skype, on a call that started late because of a busy evening the night before. She’d been helping to organize an “Awards Ball” to welcome the new freshman. The theme of the event was Harry Potter.