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German university suspends China-funded scholars

A German university has stopped accepting students funded by the Chinese government as the country grapples with its relationship with China. 

Germany's Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nurnberg has stopped accepting China-funded students. Photo: iStock.

China’s scholarship scheme has come under global scrutiny

Germany’s Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) has temporarily suspended researchers and students holding scholarships from the China Scholarship Council from joining the institution, reportedly due to concerns around espionage and academic freedom.  

It is understood that current scholarship-holders at the university are unaffected, as are recipients of a joint scholarship between the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD and the CSC. 

There were around 40,000 Chinese students in Germany in 2022, making up the country’s largest cohort of international students. It is unknown how many of these are funded by the Chinese government as this data isn’t shared publicly, but estimates suggest between 3,000 and 5,000.

China’s scholarship scheme has come under global scrutiny after a Swedish newspaper revealed the loyalty pledges recipients must make to the government.

This led some universities to end relations with the CSC, while other institutions across Europe are evaluating their relationships with China. In the Netherlands, the government promised to investigate the scholarship scheme after universities raised concerns.

A spokesperson from the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) said it supports FAU’s decision, “knowing that this decision was not taken lightly and that its consequences will be thoroughly discussed and continuously reassessed by the university”.

They added that German universities have been realigning their cooperation with China “for some time now”.

“In general, the sensitivity for security-related aspects in academic cooperation has increased considerably in recent years,” the spokesperson said.

“Nevertheless, the situation itself as well as the assessment of the situation on the part of the responsible actors varies from location to location.

“As HRK, we emphasise that decisions need to be taken on a case-by-case basis, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.”

Earlier this year, the German government unveiled its first China strategy, which takes a sceptical but pragmatic approach to relations with the superpower, labelling China as a “partner, competitor and systemic rival”. 

“China has changed,” the strategy states. “As a result of this and China’s political decisions, we need to change our approach to China.”

The government emphasises the importance of exchange between China and Germany and supports student mobility and collaborations between universities and research institutes. But the strategy also warns institutions to take a cautious approach.

“We need to change our approach to China”

“Risks for the freedom of research and teaching, illegitimate interference and unilateral knowledge and technology transfers must be minimised in this regard,” it reads. 

“We will strengthen the dialogue with universities and research institutions to this end.”

HRK said the strategy “reaffirms the guiding principles that have already been applied to academic cooperation with China in recent years”.

DAAD has recently reviewed its processes for awarding joint scholarships with China, agreeing on a split application process which sees both countries interviewing applicants separately to limit risks while maintaining cooperation. 

The German government has also increased investment in DAAD’s KIWi program, which provides guidance to German universities on international academic collaborations. 

A spokesperson from DAAD said the organisation was offering more counselling services through KIWi in response “to the increased demand for advice from German universities and scientific institutions in times of growing uncertainty in international scientific cooperation”. 

They received over 1,000 enquiries about the service last year.  

“By expanding the KIWi, the DAAD is contributing to the implementation of the federal government’s current China Strategy, which emphasises the great need for independent China expertise and the associated advisory services,” the spokesperson added.

FAU did not respond to requests for comment.

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