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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Universities should redouble their engagement with China while reaffirming their commitment to free intellectual enquiry

  • 9 July 2020

The Higher Education Policy Institute (www.hepi.ac.uk) have published a new collection of essays on the challenges and complexities of the relationship between UK universities and China.

UK Universities and China covers topics including:

  • self-censorship;
  • the importance of UK-China scientific research; and
  • the recruitment and integration of Chinese students.

The diverse contributors come from the China campus of the University of Nottingham, the University of Oxford, Universities UK International, King’s College London, the University of Sydney, the University of Manchester, Aston University and the University of Bristol.

Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer and editor of the new collection, said:

The complexity of the relationship between UK universities and China is often simplified into narratives that pivot on international student fees and the threats to academic freedom. It has sometimes been suggested that UK universities have traded their core values of free enquiry and open debate for the fees of international students. At the same time, we have witnessed a surge of racism against Chinese students already burdened with negative stereotypes.

To take such a narrow view does a disservice to the benefits that this relationship brings to the UK and sidelines other challenges and opportunities for universities relating to China. There are important discussions to have but, they will not lead to reliable conclusions or effective outcomes unless they are grounded in a proper understanding of the complexity and breadth of the relevant issues.

This collection of essays sets out to challenge these lopsided narratives, to broaden the scope of the conversation and deepen understanding to enable a richer debate grounded in expertise and evidence. The authors come from a wide range of backgrounds to express concern about academic interference and to consider the challenges in ensuring Chinese students feel welcome. They point to ways of breaking down and moving beyond lazy stereotypes and they urge universities to engage confidently with the challenges and opportunities presented by working with China and hosting Chinese students.

Universities must be as tenacious in condemning and acting against racism and stereotypes as they are assertive in reaffirming their values of free intellectual debate, two challenges which are deeply connected. This also means redoubling their engagement with China in research and bolstering Chinese studies and language learning in the UK, while providing excellent academic and pastoral support to Chinese and all other international students.

In the Introduction, Professor Gary Rawnsley of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, writes:

The value of this report is embedded in one essential fact that all the contributors address in their own way: just how little higher education institutions truly understand China and Chinese students.

In his chapter on UK / China research Professor Simon Marginson, Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, writes:

This is a rich and complex civilisation, at least as deep as Anglo-America: an evolving amalgam of Confucianism and Daoism, Imperial governance and Leninism, Western liberalism and market-capitalism, science and culture, individual and family, state and society and an abiding sense of the collective good.

In her chapter on the importance of engaging with China, Viv Stern, Director of the Universities UK International Unit, writes:

We value the presence of students from all over the world on our campuses precisely because it means that we can challenge preconceptions and spread better mutual understanding among our students. It is a rather wonderful thing that in any major UK university, there will be students studying together whose countries are at loggerheads, or even in open conflict – even if opposing student groups block each other’s student union motions.

In his chapter on self-censorship, Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College London, writes:

Offending China was never difficult. In the era of current President and Communist Party head Xi Jinping, it has become extremely easy, and the Chinese Government has not been coy in expressing this for everyone who wants to hear it. The assumption that this sort of environment must necessarily impact on the way people write and deal with China in some way, usually problematic, has strengthened.

In his chapter on Chinese students in Australia, Professor Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney writes:

Perhaps more importantly for the long-term, there are three strong reasons to suspect the Chinese Government will use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to reduce permanently the number of Chinese students going abroad for university degrees: 1. due to the demographic decline, China’s own universities need the students; 2. since 2016, China has increasingly limited its citizens’ access to foreign exchange; and 3. China is actively using its purported success in fighting the Covid-19 for propaganda purposes.

In their chapter on the ethical changes of hosting international students, Dr Sylvie Lomer and Dr Jenna Mittelmeier of the University of Manchester write:

It is therefore not sufficient for UK higher education institutions to rely on the perception of the value of a British degree in the international labour market. Ethical engagement, particularly with Chinese international students, demands a stronger integration of employability skills in the global context into the curriculum.

In her chapter on representing international students, Riddi Viswanathan writes:

International societies want representatives, students’ unions and universities to collectively promote celebrations like Chinese New Year and Diwali as events open for every international and home student interested in Chinese and Indian culture, as opposed to events particularly targeting specific groups of international students.

In her chapter on the recruitment and integration of Chinese students, Kathy Daniels of Aston University writes:

There are currently large numbers of Chinese students wanting to come to the UK. They come for a high-quality education and they, their parents and [recruitment] agents are influenced by the prestige of their institution. Ensuring that students have a high-quality experience is not only the duty of UK higher education institutions, but is essential in helping to build up a prestigious reputation for the institution and increase future recruitment.

In her chapter on being a Chinese student in the UK, Yunyan Li writes:

Students start university life with their own assumptions and worldviews, so it is hard to avoid all misunderstanding between international and home students due to rooted stereotypes or previously unpleasant experiences. However, as an international student, I hope that universities can begin to understand better the diversity of all students – international and home – and from there form a firm standpoint in fighting against racism and welcoming all incoming students.

In his conclusion, Professor Rana Mitter, the Director of the University of Oxford China Centre, writes:

A breakdown in academic relations between the UK and China would be damaging to both sides. … Yet there is no doubt that in a range of areas, in particular criticism of the Chinese system of government and its actions overseas, the Chinese government is becoming increasingly confrontational. This throws down an important challenge to the UK sector, making the role of the UK as a ‘third space’ (neither China nor the US) particularly important. …

We must welcome students from China and work harder to make sure that they feel that welcome in reality and not just in words. But we must also do so in terms that make it clear there are some values central to our sector and our society – in particular, liberal values of open, transparent research and teaching, with the freedom to debate and to ask awkward questions of the powerful – that we will not compromise.

Notes for Editors

  1. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate.
  2. In November 2019, the Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Tom Tugendhat MP, published a report entitled A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies. This voiced concern about the influence of autocracies in UK academia, particularly in reference to China and accused universities of not responding appropriately to those threats.

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