Review role of China in UK universities, Jo Johnson report urges

The report – The China Question – calls for more research funding to reduce the dependence of UK HE on Chinese student tuition fees

A landmark review of Sino-Anglo relations in UK universities has argued that the government should increase research funding to reduce university income dependence on students from China.

The 76-page report, published by The Policy Institute at King’s College London (KCL) and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and entitled The China Question, was co-authored by former universities minister Jo Johnson.

The report notes that, since 2010, “China has become deeply embedded in the UK HE and research system” and warns that as “geopolitical tensions mount […] the risk of a backlash is becoming increasingly real”. The authors urge universities and the government to produce policies to protect the sector, which would face “significant costs” if there were ever “disorderly disengagement”.

It makes 12 recommendations to HE stakeholders, including the Office for Students and UKRI, who should begin monitoring university dependence on Chinese students and research, respectively, in their risk assessment of the sector.

Universities should diversify their income streams, the report adds, with more research funding and support from the British government to improve recruitment from countries other than China.

The authors argue it is “unviable and unlikely” to be in the national interest for UK HE to decouple from China – but add that the growing role and risks require “a clear and strategic approach”.

The UK needs to do a better job of measuring, managing and mitigating risks that are at present poorly understood and monitored
Jo Johnson

The report comes after senior backbench MP Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, warned last year that university freedom “is under threat” from China.

Last week, The Telegraph reported that scientists at 33 UK universities have worked on projects with researchers at a China nuclear weapons research institution. The British academics have published “dozens of papers” with scientists employed by the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), which is on a US sanctions list due to its research into developing the Chinese nuclear arsenal. The institution is supervised by the Central Military Council.

Jo Johnson, president’s professorial fellow at KCL and senior fellow at HKS, said: “With China set to overtake the US to become both the world’s biggest spender on R&D and the UK’s most significant research partner, the UK urgently needs to put in place a framework for this key relationship so that it will be able to withstand rising geopolitical tensions. Failure to do so risks real damage to our knowledge economy.

“We have an extensive relationship with China across our university system, in both teaching and research, that is inadequately mapped at present. The UK needs to do a better job of measuring, managing and mitigating risks that are at present poorly understood and monitored.”

National security is of the utmost importance to institutions, and every UK university has mechanisms in place to handle risks associated with international collaborations
Universities UK

The recommendations:

The researchers say there are now “no fewer than 20 subject categories in which collaborations with China account for more than 20% of the UK’s high-impact research”. Collaborations with China account for more than 30% of output from UK universities in automation, telecommunications and materials science research.

For this reason, the authors say UKRI – the non-departmental government research funding agency – should “provide the government with a more detailed picture of the UK’s international collaboration”. The information – presented as an annual risk assessment to ministers – should account for “brain circulation” into and out of the UK, and trends in academic research partnerships with foreign countries. The agency should also conduct an immediate audit of all research projects with China and “establish clear, common contractual arrangements for bilateral research, using a template agreed between UUK (Universities UK), UKRI and government” for all universities to use.

The report calls for a new horizon-scanning agency, working with UKRI and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure, to “contribute unique research and analytic capacity” on foreign research projects.

The OfS – which monitors university financial stability – should include reliance on international student tuition fees in its risk assessments, the authors suggest. Like UKRI, the regulator should relay concerns to ministers – and set out expectations for universities to diversify their recruitment if considered too reliant on students from one country. More than 408,000 non-EU international students were studying at UK higher education providers in 2019/20, figures from the Higher Education Statistics show. Of those, more than a quarter (104,000) were from China.

The authors argue ministers must commit “to progressively increasing the proportion of block grant and Quality Related (QR) funding in public research spending” to wean universities off dependence on international student tuition fees. Figures published by the Higher Education Policy Institute suggest that international students, on average, paid £5,100 more than it costs to teach them: around £4,250 of that is spent topping up research funding pots. Research income and UK-domiciled tuition fees cover 69.4% and 98.3% of their expenses, respectively – while international students contribute 139.3% of their costs.

The government should factor Sino-Anglo HE relationships into a “whole-of-government approach” to foreign policy, the report maintains. Research collaborations should “feature prominently in new free trade agreements” and international student visas should offer the sector a competitive edge, for example. The new Office for Talent (OfT) should assess UK dependence on overseas STEM postgraduates and introduce measures “to boost the domestic STEM talent pipeline”. The OfT was announced in the Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap last year. It will be based at Number 10 with responsibility for reviewing the effectiveness of visa rules for scientists and researchers.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Universities UK said: “International collaboration, mobility and exchange in education and research add great value to our universities. However, national security is of the utmost importance to institutions, and every UK university has mechanisms in place to handle risks associated with international collaborations, in line with government guidance and the values of the UK higher education sector.

“As this new report recognises, UUK has recently published its own guidance, developed with input from a range of partners to enable universities to better safeguard themselves against security-related risks. We are testing these guidelines to make sure they are as effective as possible, and the sector is committed to working with government to ensure they are implemented to help address risks that are often complex and dynamic in nature.

“UUK is also working with government to develop a more coherent approach for future international engagement, delivering on the government’s global research and innovation ambitions and the priorities set out in the refreshed International Education Strategy, while ensuring that the growth of activity does not compromise the values of UK universities or the national interest.”

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

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