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Building Bridges to Beijing?

  • 23 November 2023
  • By David Law

In common with most institutions in the sector, Keele is aiming to expand its connections in China.  As part of this work, in September 2023 I joined a mission of Vice-Chancellors, Pro-VCs, and senior staff from 20 UK universities.  We visited Beijing, Shanghai, and some other cities.  The meetings were engaging and we learnt a lot.  But we did this in a context of a chorus of concern voiced by many politicians that the UK’s HE links are already too close.

British Council, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and Universities UK International (UUKi) organized a comprehensive programme.  We were the first formal group visit to China since the pandemic.  Previous groups often took a specific focus, such as scientific research, or were set up by organisations such as the Russell Group.  The September tour was representative of the whole sector, with an approximately equal representation between Russell Group and non-RG universities.

The 2023 UK-China Higher Education Forum was a major highlight.  Co-curated by the British Council and the CEAIE (China Education Association for International Exchange), 40 Chinese universities attended the Forum.

The first rule of rational debate is to establish the facts.


For more than 40 years, the UK and China have engaged in multi-level collaboration in research and higher education.  The starting point was the ‘Third Plenum’, December 1978, which confirmed the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and marked the beginning of “reform and opening up” in China’s economy.  The new approach in China was based on the use of market mechanisms, the import of capital and some capitalist techniques, and technological modernization acquired through controlled integration with Europe and America.  In the industrial economy this led to various forms of joint ventures.  In HE, this would propel Chinese universities towards collaborative international models, within a policy framework designed by Chinese officials.  This has certainly raised the quality of Chinese universities and created ‘trans-national education with Chinese characteristics.

During two decades, in China, a highly specific and mature large-scale trans-national education (TNE) has been established.  In other territories, the profit motive is very apparent; in China, the government strictly limits how much money the foreign partner can repatriate.  It calls this ‘reasonable return’.

There is no sign that appetite diminishes from overseas universities who queue up to participate in this sustained and successful project.  The published TNE data shows China to be the top location for UK delivery (

TNE is defined by bringing the programme to the student, not vice-versa.  If only for currency outflow reasons, it makes sense for China to encourage more students to stay in their home country.  TNE activity in China is also highly distinctive, as well as being very large.  Globally, nowhere else is the state so paramount, as illustrated by the range of programme approval procedures used by the Beijing Ministry of Education.  Chinese colleagues that I speak with are astonished that a UK university does not need government permission to establish TNE in China.

Current features of the UK/China relationship in HE

Of course, student mobility is a crucial dimension of this relationship.  China remains one of the top international student recruitment markets for the UK, with approximately 150,000 Chinese students studying in the UK.  Whilst the numbers are very lop-sided, UK students do go to China for short-term study programmes. The British Council reported to the HE Forum that, over the last decade, more than 67,000 young people from the UK have participated in study, internship, and teaching programmes in China, both through its own initiatives and other possibilities.  The UK HE sector has a cohort of impressive alumni employed in China.  Many alumni are now in senior administrative positions in public and private organisations; they contribute significantly to the Chinese economy and they help to shape public opinion.  This contributes to the narrow objective of UK HE (to remain a key partner), and to a wider wide range of social, economic, and cultural connections between China and the UK. 

In TNE, there are now more than 260 joint education programmes and institutes that have formal approval by the Ministry of Education (including 44 joint institutes (JI) – this includes Keele’s Health and Medical Sciences JI in Chengdu).  The total TNE enrollment is above 70,000 students.  Collectively, UK TNE has more students in China than in any other country; this is most unlikely to change for many years to come.

Research collaboration with China is also strong.  Grants made by the UK-China Research and Innovation Partnership Fund facilitate connections between over 100 Chinese universities and more than 50 from the UK.  The UK is now China’s second largest research partner in terms of academic co-publications; and China is also the UK’s second largest.  


There are many opportunities in China for collaboration, both in arts and sciences.  On the basis of China’s sustained economic growth and social development, the number of disciplinary areas that are included in partnership models continues to expand.  At one time, there was a major focus on management and IT; this has steadily changed.

Our delegation left China united in the view that the UK, within and beyond universities, needs to develop stronger cultural awareness of China.  At present, there is no doubt that our awareness is lagging behind.  For example, using comparative student numbers on ‘programmes’ of all kinds (short and long courses), Chinese participation in mobility is well over one order of magnitude higher.  We need more students in our language classes, not just in our Chinese Studies departments, and to make a greater effort to involve students in outward mobility.  The work by Michael Natzler for HEPI is particularly instructive (hyperlinked below).

China’s leadership, in all spheres, aims for multi-polarity in world systems.  The UK’s reputation in China for quality HE is very strong; leaders of Chinese universities respect the achievements of our universities.  But we must not take that for granted.  We have a rich track record in education and research but we need to earn our reputation and evaluate all opportunities (for cost/benefit and risk).  There is a danger of complacency; across the world there are other national systems that are competing with the UK for position in China.

Can the UK higher education sector rise to the challenge?  We need to embrace reciprocity, although the parameters for safe engagement are not always clear.  We must show our intellectual grasp of the challenges and operate in a way that is true to ourselves and to our heritage. 

In his Mansion House speech, 25 April 2023, the UK Foreign Secretary said: “we must face the inescapable reality that no significant global problem … can be solved without China.”  It must be said with conviction: universities help solve global problems.  Therefore, UK universities have to build bridges to Beijing but always with clear sightedness and careful risk analysis.

No UK university can disregard ‘stakeholder’ views; we must be ready to respond.  We know that this hot topic in Whitehall and Westminster stirs the passions; we also know that our universities are not a branch of government.  There are three principles outlined by the Foreign Office: protect [our interests], align [with our allies], engage.  HE’s role is engagement; we leave it to government to define national policy.

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  1. – a rather extraordinary blog, if I may say so, not least in a context of ‘establishing the facts’.

    There’s no mention – even en passant – of the matters of academic freedom, institutional autonomy, ideology, the position of social sciences and the humanities, the university-state relationship, the place of Marxism, the relationship of academic work to international scholarship and publications, higher education and public good, universities and UNESCO’s Sustainability Development Goals, the idea of institutional leadership, culture wars on campus, the ideas of dissent and activism, epistemic ‘diplomacy’, the digital revolution, and so on and so forth. (And each of these matters has its own formation, criss-crossing and countering each other in complex configurations.)

    In other words, especially in its absences, the HEPI offering we have here can itself plausibly be said – I fear – to be heavily ideological in its innermost character.

  2. Albert Wright says:

    A very timely article making a strong case for engagement with China, which we would be foolish not to follow. In no way should China be ignored. They are a formidable world power and the UK needs to have better, more extensive knowledge of the country.

    China has much to teach us, which I have experienced first hand during a British Council organised exchnage visit a decade ago. Our group saw many interesting projects in a wide range of places and we hosted several senior Chinese individuals on their return visit to England.

    I believe there should be more such exchanges.

    There was a huge difference between rural areas and major cities and despite having massive universities with tens of thousands of students in some cities, many universities also had sites elsewhere in the country.

    Of course engagement needs to be selective, but international problems such as net zero need to be addressed with China which is still opening ne coalmines every month.

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