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No growth in Chinese Studies graduates during China’s ascendancy

  • 31 March 2022
  • By Michael Natzler

The Higher Education Policy Institute is publishing a new report, Understanding China: The Study of China in UK schools and universities by Michael Natzler (HEPI Report 148), sponsored by the University of St Andrews.

The report reviews the current state of teaching and research on China in UK schools and universities. It reveals there is a consensus among UK-China policy experts, the Government and academics that it should be a priority to remedy the severe national deficit in China literacy and Mandarin speakers.

Based on interviews with over 40 individuals from education, government and business, the report makes recommendations to improve China literacy and increase the number of Mandarin speakers in the UK.

Despite the growth in importance of China in the world today, the number of Chinese Studies students has not increased in the past 25 years and this is reflected in the decline of Chinese Studies departments offering single-honours undergraduate degrees, which fell by around one-third from 13 to nine between 2019 and 2020. There has been £50 million of public and private investment in Mandarin teaching for schools. However, the Pre-U in Mandarin Chinese is closing in 2023 so only the problematic A-Level will remain. Modern China is largely absent on school curricula and teachers often lack confidence teaching the area.

The report argues that the Government should publish a strategy to tackle what a top Foreign Office Civil Servant identified as the ‘generational challenge’ of building China literacy in the UK, the lack of which Lord (Jo) Johnson has identified as ‘The current single greatest failure of UK policy towards China’.

The other recommendations include:

  • the Office for Students should consider whether Chinese Studies should be included as a high-cost course to teach;
  • the Department for Education should ensure there will continue to be a suitable Level 3 qualification for school leavers and support the introduction of an A-Level in Chinese Civilisation; and
  • a small pot of funding should be made available to support the training of schoolteachers in modules that cover modern China.

Michael Natzler, report author and former Policy Officer at HEPI, said: 

‘Regardless of the levels of scepticism or support for China’s activities today, there is an expert consensus that the UK lacks sufficient knowledge and understanding of China to make sensible decisions. This is an issue that is long overdue for being addressed. Early exposure to China in schools is vital for building a pipeline of China-literacy and increasing student numbers on Chinese Studies courses in higher education. While there are some promising Mandarin language programmes, there is a gaping hole in the curriculum for cultural study that could be filled by a new A-Level in Chinese Civilisation.’ 

In a guest Foreword, Rana Mitter, Professor of Chinese History and Politics at the University of Oxford, writes:

‘Post-Brexit Britain will want to enter new markets in Asia – and will have to learn how every single economy in the region has to take account of China’s presence. In a post-COVID world, the way that China responds to questions relating to everything from science funding to global supply chains will have direct impacts on the UK. As in any democratic society, there will be varied views in the British public sphere on how to deal with China. Those views will often be robustly expressed, as is only right in a free society. But those conversations and debates can no longer afford to take in a swift and superficial view of China. The time to deepen the debate has surely arrived.’

Bahram Bekhradnia, Chair of the 1999 Review of Chinese Studies and President of HEPI, writes in the Afterword: 

‘Our 1999 report focused exclusively on supply side issues, and the response focused on universities’ capacity in Chinese studies – and especially the availability of departments of Chinese in universities. This new report from HEPI makes it clear that, important though the supply-side may be, it is demand that is the critical factor. On the supply side, it is hugely disappointing that the Office for Students does not regard Chinese as a strategically important subject, but undoubtedly this report is correct in asserting that action is needed at school level – and indeed in the wider community – in order to boost demand and meet the challenge.’

Professor Sally Mapstone FRSE, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of St Andrews and Chair of HEPI, said:

‘The Chinese Studies programmes at the University of St Andrews, launched in 2021, are unique in offering opportunities for both undergraduate and postgraduate study on a wide range of subjects including literature, cinema, history, gender and identity issues. Our programmes also include courses on Hong Kong history and culture, and students have the opportunity to learn a second Chinese language in addition to Mandarin, either Cantonese or Hokkien.

‘The HEPI report provides a critical snapshot of the UK’s relatively slow progress on Chinese Studies, and where the country needs to be, and we are delighted to be sponsors of this important work.’

On the day of publication, 31 March 2022, HEPI will be hosting a free webinar on the issues raised by the paper with the following speakers:

  • the Rt. Hon. the Lord Johnson (former Minister for Universities and Science and co-author of The China question);
  • Steph Harris (Acting Assistant Director for Policy and International Engagement at Universities UK International);
  • Professor Rana Mitter (Professor of Chinese History and Politics at the University of Oxford); and
  • Professor Gregory Lee (Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of St Andrews).

Notes for Editors

  1. HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity. Michael Natzler is HEPI’s former Policy Officer who led on HEPI’s China work, editing the collection of essays UK Universities and China (2020). HEPI’s other recent work includes reports on the decline in language learning (A Languages Crisis?, 2020), national security and research (What’s next for national security and research?, 2022) and various reports on international students (including reports in 2021 with Universities UK International Unit on the economic benefits to the UK and a report with Kaplan on improving careers support for international students).
  2. Founded in the 15th century, St Andrews is Scotland’s first university and the third oldest in the English-speaking world. The University of St Andrews is one of Europe’s most research-intensive seats of learning. It is one of the top-rated universities in Europe for research, teaching quality and student satisfaction. Today, under the leadership of Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sally Mapstone, the University’s strategy is to broaden its global influence, with a focus on diversity, building a culture of entrepreneurship, research excellence and social responsibility. The University has set an ambitious target of carbon net zero by 2035, ten years ahead of the Scottish Government’s 2045 target. St Andrews is ranked as the top university in the UK in The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.


  1. albert wright says:

    If the UK wishes to remain a super power in the world, we must ensure our political leaders and thought leaders have a proper understanding of not only China but also other major world powers such as Japan and Russia.

    The encouragement to develop GCSEs and A levels related to these countries should be more widely supported to increase the likelihood of there being suitable provision at HE level.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was a student of Chinese Studies at university in the UK/non-native speaker. 

I studied Mandarin Chinese full time for five years full time and one year at University in China. It was the biggest intellectual and financial investment I ever made. 

I spent years in London sending out what must have been thousands of CVs.

    No employer took the slightest interest in the fact I learned Mandarin; it was completely looked down upon and of absolutely no interest to any employer.

    I have a crap job and a crap life as a result. At 28 years old I had to move back in with my parents because I was in credit card debt after failing interviews and my marriage ended as a result.


Had I spent 5 years learning computer science, engineering or medicine I don’t think my outcome would be quite the same. 

    There are thousands of roles that I would be perfectly suited to; sadly I cannot find any employer who will take me seriously. 35 now.

  3. albert wright says:

    I am really sorry to hear this. Is your story a “one off” or are other students in a similar position?

    What was the success rate of getting a job for the other people on your University course?

    What help was there for you from your University?

    Does this come as a surprise to those academics involved with teaching Mandarin at UK Universities.

  4. Anaon says:

    I don’t think his story will be a one off and your reply says it all. You can’t believe. You look at the jobs in uk that use mandarin. Awful pay awful hours and as soon as they see you’re white they don’t want you. I totally believe this guys experience and it does not surprise me at all. The language alone is useless.

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