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.”