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Sunak U-turns on shuttering UK’s Confucius Institutes

In a U-turn decision, the UK government is no longer planning to close the country’s 30 Confucius Institutes.

In 2022 it was confirmed that the UK PM was “looking to close” the Institutes. Photo: Pexels

Sunak previously described China as "the biggest long-term threat to Britain"

A spokesperson for UK prime minister Rishi Sunak said, “We are taking action to remove all government funding from Confucius Institutes in the UK, but currently judge that it would be disproportionate to ban them.”

“Like any international body operating in the UK, Confucius Institutes need to operate transparently and within the law, and with a full commitment to our values of openness and freedom of expression.

“We recognise concerns about overseas interference in our higher education sector, including through Confucius Institutes, and regularly assess the risks facing academia,” the spokesperson said.

The government funding in question goes towards Mandarin language teaching at schools channelled through university-based Confucius Institutes, according to the China Research Group, with at least £27m allocated from 2015 to 2024.

The latest government stance goes against Sunak’s previous decision, as it was confirmed in November 2022 that he was “looking to close” the UK’s Confucius Institutes, after pledging to do so in the Conservative party leadership campaign.

During campaigning, Sunak described China as “the biggest long-term threat to Britain”.

On May 17, Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss urged him to act on his previous comments made during campaigning.

“He was right and we need to see those policies enacted urgently,” said Truss, while giving a speech in Taiwan – which a China embassy spokesperson described as “a dangerous political show”.

“Confucius Institutes should be closed down immediately,” said Truss.

“Instead, the service could be provided by organisations with the support of Hong Kong nationals and Taiwanese nationals who have come to the UK on a free basis,” she suggested.

Commentators have argued that closing the Confucius Institutes would be further driving a gap in knowledge at a time when China literacy is “needed more than ever”.

“What has rather got lost in the noise is how their removal would significantly reduce access to Mandarin lessons for hundreds of students,” said Conor Horsfall, consultant, Shearwater Global.

“With the UK already significantly lacking in Chinese-language capabilities, urgent investment is needed to fill this knowledge gap, especially if the institutes do close down.

“Their removal would significantly reduce access to Mandarin lessons”

“Establishing new collaboration with Taiwanese institutes has been put forward as a possible solution, although this will do little to help cool tensions with Beijing,” Horsfall warned.

Other initiatives of China abroad have also caused tension in recent months, with Sweden uncovering a culture of “loyalty pledges” among China Scholarship Council students.

Meanwhile, some stakeholders are calling for the end to university-based Confucius Institutes.

“There are huge variations among Confucius Institutes in how they operate but they are all ultimately superintended by the Chinese Communist Party and as such should not belong to any university campus,” Steve Tsang, Director, SOAS China Institute, told The PIE.

He added that if the UK government ultimately do close the country’s Confucius Institutes, it should provide alternative funding “to enable universities to have the capacity to teach Mandarin, and do so properly”.

“The pedagogy Confucius Institutes follow in teaching Mandarin is generally not well suited to teaching native English speakers in the digital era anyway. What we need is something that is well suited,” Tsang argued.

“Urgent investment is needed to fill this knowledge gap”

Despite governments in the US, the Netherlands and Germany discouraging institutions from renewing partnerships with Confucius Institutes, new ones have recently opened in the UK, including the world’s first online Confucius Institute.

“Our flexible, all-inclusive, and social approach to education enables us to reach and inspire learners at scale from all backgrounds and locations who might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn Chinese and to explore Chinese civilisation and cultures,” the Online Confucius Institute at the Open University said, in a recent statement celebrating its one year anniversary.

The news comes in the same week that the Office for Students wrote to 23 UK institutions to ask about their contingency plans in the event of a “sudden drop” in numbers of Chinese students.

The PIE contacted both Universities UK and several universities known to run Confucius Institutes for comment.

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