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Why UK universities should maintain Chinese collaborations, despite the headwinds

  • 26 May 2023
  • By Professor Wendy Alexander
  • This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Wendy Alexander, Vice-Principal International at the University of Dundee and Scottish Higher Education Trade and Investment Envoy.

I was recently back in China. My last trip to Wuhan in January 2020, where Dundee has a joint programme in Architecture, was against the backdrop of the pandemic taking hold. Three years on there was much to repair for a generation of transnational education (TNE) students whose education had been disrupted by COVID. UK-taught lessons had been online and remote during lockdowns, language learning was impaired and there were few opportunities to enjoy the best of the UK student experience.

Beyond these aggravations is the significant chilling in geopolitics exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict, the rise in state surveillance and diminution of personal privacy. As the Financial Times recently observed after four decades of ‘reforming and opening’, we now face an era of ‘security and control.’ Hence, while the US Administration and the UK Government still characterise China as a strategic competitor rather than a threat, the chilling in relations leads to questions about the future of Sino-British educational links. The sector desires a coherent strategy towards UK-China relations and the recent ‘strategic ambiguity’ is challenging for institutions which have built strong ties with Chinese partners. However, given ongoing tensions around Taiwan, Xinjiang, human rights and the selective economic decoupling, some ‘strategic ambiguity’ seems set to remain. The Government’s Integrated Review Refresh, published in March, commits to open, constructive and predictable relations, including an enhanced understanding of China’s role, more Mandarin speakers and a deeper professional understanding of China. There was explicit recognition of higher education’s key role in delivering these ambitions. The Foreign Secretary in his Mansion House Speech in April helpfully signalled that isolation China would be a betrayal of the national interest and a wilful misunderstanding of the modern world where ‘no significant global problem – from climate change to pandemic prevention, from economic instability to nuclear proliferation – can be solved without China.’ Hence, we should engage confidently when it is in our interests to do so.

For sector leaders trying to navigate Chinese engagement, Kevin Rudd’s trilateral framework is helpful, delineating arenas of:

  1. ongoing difference (human rights, political systems etc);
  2. managed competition (economy and trade); and
  3. potential collaboration (climate, vaccines, pandemic prevention, global finance). 

The sector can be respectful of ongoing differences, and applaud brave reformers in autocracies, whilst also actively contributing to collaborations. Higher education has a particular role in nurturing what Martin Wolf in The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism describes as ‘global public goods’: peace; prosperity; climate change; and pandemics. These four interconnected global challenges require a new architecture to address them. Post-war global prosperity was supported by rules and institutions created by the West. We cannot create a new global architecture for these global challenges without China. Higher education has a role to play in areas such as education, health, climate, energy and the environment. The sector can help foster the mutual understanding and future management of relations with China that could avoid mutual suspicion precipitating conflict. 

Higher education institutions working in China should neither be naïve about the context, nor paralysed by it. Yes, we need ‘eyes wide open’ but nor should we ‘walk away’ when confronted by a more challenging operating environment. Security experts and sector leaders are at one on a core challenge for the future: do we really want fewer people speaking Mandarin or familiar with Chinese language and history? And despite China’s official agenda for increased self-reliance, I found a strong continuing appetite for educational collaborations that share western learning and teaching pedagogies.

International activity is characterised by three core activities: recruitment; research and transnational education. 

  1. Recruitment is recovering strongly. Notwithstanding its demographic challenges, China will remain a major sending country with 100,000+ Chinese students annually seeking out a UK education. With the return of post-study work opportunities and a rise in other sending markets, China’s share of UK visa issuance has slipped from +40% pre pandemic to a more sustainable 20%. This should alleviate concerns about overdependency. And as the directors of MI5 and the FBI observed in a joint commentary encouraging universities not to cut off from China ‘having almost 150,000 students studying here is in almost all cases good for them and good for us’. The demand from prosperous Chinese parents to have their children educated overseas is unabated and the Chinese Government has shown no post pandemic inclination to interfere with those preferences. From a more self-interested perspective, as decades of Western leaders have noted, you can invariably tell which Chinese leaders had a western education. We should continue to have an expansionist approach to sharing western pedagogy, thought and liberal values with those who want to avail themselves of those educational opportunities. And international alumni frequently become cultural translators or informal ambassadors once returned, for the countries where they were they were educated. 
  2. Research is the most potentially problematic area and the arena of greatest reflection in recent years. The issues were rehearsed at the recent hearing the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. As UUK highlighted, since 2019 there have been three major pieces of sector-led research security guidance addressing: protecting our reputation and values; protecting our people: protecting our campuses and protecting our partnerships. This has led in improved due diligence, strengthened intellectual property protection and better risk assessments. The Government’s new Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT) is tasked with providing tailored guidance and a one stop shop. Yet there remains a need to streamline the proliferation of guidance, otherwise overlapping guidance risks inducing good actors’ fatigue and frustration. The stalling of US / China relations is already impacting the geography of research collaboration. However, legitimate national interests should not impede collaboration where it makes sense, as during the pandemic. Institutions need to try and avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Times Higher Education recently reported how US university leaders fear blocking by national research funders if they develop Chinese collaborations. The UK has taken a more enlightened approach with a current UKRI joint call with China on anti-microbial resistance and pandemic prevention and a forthcoming call on climate change. Yet we can expect these calls to be restricted to safe areas for collaboration. UK researchers cannot routinely secure funding from China while in the UK, however, if they are working in China and applying with Chinese colleagues, there are more opportunities. Fieldwork in China has become harder and potential collaborators more reticent. Yet, despite the challenges, the UK is unlikely to achieve its stated ambition of being a science and technology superpower without continued cooperation with collaborators in China.
  3. Transnational education in China covers the whole spectrum of teaching collaborations – pathways and foundation programmes, articulations, branch campuses, joint institutes and joint programmes with the last three being approved by the Ministry of Education. British universities have over 20 Joint Institutes and 250 Joint Programmes in China. In China, as elsewhere, public universities are funded by the state. This requires ongoing vigilance. For example, Joint Institute and Programme students, like all Chinese citizens, lack uncensored access to the internet. However, the prize remains to better understand each other’s cultures and history. Chinese TNE students, who cannot afford a UK undergraduate programme, can benefit from core aspects of a western education and visiting UK students to China typically characterise it a transformational experience. 

The lived reality of managing academic collaborations in China and delivering excellence in the student experience is frequently mundane: what student clubs work in situ; how English and critical thinking skills are taught; the quality of staff accommodation; local visa and residency requirements; opening local bank accounts; and accessing health care. Recent Chinese restrictions on governance, tax and residency make it a tougher operating environment than pre-COVID. However, the appetite amongst leading Chinese universities for academic skills training and pedagogies from UK universities to modernise teaching methods seems undiminished. 

The lack of academic freedom in China is a challenge. UK institutions need to reaffirm our belief in the right of our academic community, indeed any academic, to pursue their work free from academic sanction. Even when teaching STEM subjects, as Dundee does, dilemmas arise. Such dilemmas are less around popular women-in-STEM and employability events or student welfare, but around how our commitment to the student voice lands in the Chinese context. Staff and students self-limit how they approach sensitive topics. The challenge for our academic staff is how to show respect to colleagues and students without compromising our values. Every generation of scholars operating in a challenging environment wrestles with these shifting boundaries around legitimate public and private dialogue. 

Post-COVID, the Chinese people are less confident about their economic future, facing high unemployment and the period ahead will be a test of the CCP’s social contract. 

Looking forward those UK institutions already invested in China will likely deepen their teaching collaborations.  For those not yet present, the risk calculus may seem too high. UK universities fear stranded students in the way corporates fear stranded assets. It is not yet clear if, or when, the ‘liveability’ quotient for expats will return to pre-pandemic levels. The Chinese Government’s nationalism militates against that. 

In the UK we need to distinguish between beneficial and potentially harmful modes of engagement. A more streamlined legislative and regulatory environment would help. This requires judgement. And in the case of China this is nothing new. My children question whether working in China is somehow to endorse President Xi and his direction of travel. I tell them about their great grandparents who taught Medicine in Northern China in the interwar years, living under Japanese civilian, and then military, occupation. They, and their colleagues on the medical faculty constantly had to assess beneficial versus harmful modes of engagement. Was a Shinto ceremony appropriate, how did they respond to the arrest of a Chinese colleague, which flag should be flown from the College, which languages of instruction? 

Hence the challenges we face today are not new. They are perennial for international educators committed to building international understanding and nurturing a new generation of scholars. However, a century later, I still meet the grateful descendants of those educated by western scholars in the interwar years. In today’s cold climate we should stay the course and know that the values of the academy can contribute to a better future.

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