BEIJING – In the capital of tropical Laos, two dozen students who see their future in trade ties with neighboring China spent their school year attending Mandarin classes in a no-frills, rented room. It's the start of China's first, and almost certainly not its last, university campus abroad.
"There are a lot of companies in Laos that are from China," said 19-year-old Palamy Siphandone. She said she chose the Soochow University branch campus after hearing it would offer scholarships to students with high scores.
"If I can speak Chinese, I get more opportunities to work with them," she said in a telephone interview during a trip to the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou — the home city of Soochow University.
Education officials in China are promoting the notion of the country's universities expanding overseas, tapping new education markets while extending the influence of the rising economic power.
China so far has been on the receiving end of the globalization of education, with Western institutions rushing to China to set up shop. Now it's stepping out.
In addition to the emerging Laos campus, there are plans for what may become one of the world's largest overseas branch campuses in Malaysia and an agreement by a Chinese university to explore a joint campus with a British university in London.
"The Chinese government and its universities have been very ambitious in the reform and internationalization of Chinese higher education," said Mary Gallagher, director of the Center of Chinese Studies at University of Michigan.
"This is partly about increasing China's soft power, increasing the number of people who study the Chinese language and are knowledgeable about China from the Chinese perspective."
Chinese universities historically have offered language lessons in foreign countries but usually to serve the overseas Chinese population. In recent years, the Chinese government has set up Confucius Institutes around the globe to promote Chinese culture and language.
But full-fledged campuses that can confer degrees are a new experiment. China's Education Ministry declined The Associated Press' request for an interview on the issue, saying the effort was too nascent to discuss yet.
The Laos branch of Soochow University, based in Vientiane, is now looking to raise money for a full-fledged campus of 5,000 students, university official Chen Mei said.
"The national policy wants us to go out, as the internationalization of education comes with the globalization of economy," she said.
The Lao campus started as part of an economic development zone between Laos and Chinese governments, then continued after the larger project fell through.
China's Xiamen University, based in eastern Fujian province, announced plans early this year to open a branch in Malaysia by 2015 and have annual enrollment of 10,000 by 2020. In May, China's Zhejiang University and Imperial College London signed an agreement to explore options for a joint campus, though the scope and funding are still to be spelled out.
Philip G. Altbach, an expert on international higher education at Boston College, warns that Chinese universities might be venturing out too soon.
"I think that China's top universities have sufficient work to do at home that they do not need to expand into the risky and often expensive world of branch campuses outside of China," Altbach wrote in an e-mail. "China's global influence and prestige in higher education is best served by strengthening its universities at home and offering a 'world class' education to Chinese students and expanded numbers of overseas students."
Starting in the 1990s, China — aiming to graduate more college students — began to build new campuses, encourage privatization of higher education and expand enrollment. The rush has been accompanied with criticism that quality has been overlooked by quantity and that Chinese colleges have failed to prepare their students for the job market, or to deliver a well-rounded education.
The changes have helped draw international students, whose numbers in mainland China are growing and topped 290,000 in 2011.
China also has encouraged its youth to seek education abroad and has invited foreign universities — especially top institutes — to set up joint programs and branch campuses to help meet the demand for quality education.
The city of Kunshan in Jiangsu province is building a $260 million campus for Duke University, and New York University will open an outpost in Shanghai with classes to begin in this fall.
"Many people in higher education in China who are committed to educational reform hope that these moves overseas and also the move of foreign universities to China will create more pressure for reform within Chinese universities," Gallagher said.
China maintains a highly specialized approach to university studies that has its roots in the Soviet model, but many Chinese educators want to blend in more liberal education to encourage social morals, civic responsibility, innovation and critical thinking.
In Malaysia, where British universities have expanded in recent years, the plans by China's Xiamen University have been lauded by the government, with Prime Minister Najib Razak calling it "historic." The branch campus will likely attract many among Malaysia's large ethnic Chinese minority for courses that will range from economics to chemical engineering and Chinese literature.
Ethnic Chinese comprise more than one-fifth of Malaysia's 29 million people, and some of them have complained that their children face difficulties securing places in Malaysian state-backed universities because of affirmative action policies that favor the ethnic Malay majority.
Xiamen has roots in the country, in a sense: The university was founded in 1921 by Tan Kah Kee, a business tycoon who made his fortune in Southeast Asia, including what is now Malaysia.
"It's a giveback from history," Xiamen University President Zhu Chongshi said, as quoted by the national party newspaper People's Daily.
The government is squarely behind the efforts by Chinese universities to expand abroad: The signing in China of the Zhejiang University agreement with London's Imperial College was attended by a provincial governor. But universities say they must find the funding for the branches on their own from tuition revenue and private sources.
That is in contrast to the Confucius Institutes, which are directly subsidized by Beijing, said Chen of the Laos branch campus.
But despite funding challenges, she said she is optimistic about the future of the branch campus in Laos, where she noted there is a growing middle class eager for quality education and keen to do business with China.
"We do not have to worry about finding students," she said. "There's a huge demand for education here."
AP writer Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.