UK universities and China: new Hepi publication explores a complex relationship

Hepi publishes a collection of essays on the relationship between UK universities and China

A new collection of essays published by the The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) delves into the challenges and complexities of the relationship between UK universities and China.

‘UK Universities and China’ contains eight essays by authors drawn 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.

It tackles topics including: self-censorship; the importance of UK-China scientific research; and the recruitment and integration of Chinese students.

“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,” said Michael Natzler, Hepi’s policy officer and editor of the new collection.

“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 her chapter, entitled ‘Hostile rhetoric and the importance of continuing to engage’, Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK (UUK) 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.”

Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College London, in a piece on China and self-censorship, points out that “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.”

The long-term impact of Covid-19 on Chinese government policy around higher education is the focus of Professor Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney.

“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 his conclusion, Professor Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, summarises the key dilemma facing UK universities in their relationship with China:

“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.”


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