In a milestone accord, the University of Massachusetts has struck an agreement with Chinese officials to become the first foreign university to offer government-sanctioned online classes in the communist country.
The agreement announced yesterday gives UMass an exclusive window to offer the classes for the next five years in the nation of 1.3 billion.
Officials said the new program eventually could serve some 5,000 students a year throughout the country, generating up to $5 million a year for the university.
The agreement with China's Continuing Education Association and Cernet Education Corp., a distance-learning company, would provide UMass's highly regarded distance classes and degree programs to students at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China's most prestigious university. UMass plans to offer 40 online courses, four certificate programs, and one master's degree program within a year.
Students would pay for the programs, which would be administered through Tsinghua.
UMass says Chinese officials have pledged not to restrict the course content. China's government controls Internet access and routinely censors websites deemed to be subversive.
Jack M. Wilson, president of UMass, said the agreement was the result of extensive discussions and educational exchanges over the past two years between the university and Chinese officials.
"They haven't been receptive in the past to other institutions coming in, so this is very exciting," Wilson said.
"We have developed one of the best online education programs in the world, and that is increasingly being recognized around the globe," he added.
Wilson said he hoped the distance-education program would lead to further collaboration and exchange programs between the two universities.
The agreement must be approved by China's Ministry of Education, which currently does not recognize credits from foreign universities. But both partners that signed the agreement are closely affiliated with the government, and UMass officials are confident of final approval by this fall.
UMassOnline, the university's online arm, is one of the largest accredited distance-learning programs, offering 1,500 courses to about 33,000 students. Wilson was its first chief executive, from 2001 to 2003, before being named president of the five-campus UMass system.
Wilson said the university has forged extensive academic and research ties with China in recent years. The agreement builds on an academic and research partnership with Tsinghua, which has a close relationship with the Education Ministry. In December, Wilson visited China as part of Governor Deval Patrick's trade delegation, which consisted of about a dozen academics and business executives.
On that trip, UMass Medical School professor Craig Mello was named an honorary professor at Tsinghua University. Mello shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in medicine for work on a gene-blocking technology called RNAi.
Yan Jichang, vice chairman and general secretary of China's Continuing Education Association, said that "the importance of this strategic partnership cannot be overstated" and that it is crucial to "the future of China's place in the league of nations."
Zhu Yidong, vice chairman of Cernet Education, said that within five years, the online courses will "have paved the way for other foreign universities to enter the China market."
Baifeng Sun, associate director at Confucius Institute at UMass-Boston, said the online program holds great promise for Chinese education and improved relations between the two countries.
"This will widen the bridge between the two countries," she said. "This will help students get more information and learn."
Clarification: A story in Tuesday's City & Region section reported that the University of Massachusetts was on the verge of becoming the first foreign university whose online education courses and degrees will be officially recognized in China. But after the UMass announcement, Southern New Hampshire University said it had received permission from the Chinese government a year ago to offer an online MBA program, beginning this fall. While both schools produced documents on their agreements with China, it could not be independently verified which school was the first to have online degree programs recognized by China. There are other US colleges and universities offering online programs in China, but some are either not sanctioned by the government or part of a degree program.