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UK unis dispute practicality of reducing dependance on China

University representatives have questioned how realistic the recommendations of a recent report outlining the UK’s dependence on China for research and funding are for the sector.

ChinaChina is expected to become the UK's top research collaborator over the coming years. Photo: Unsplash

In certain key fields... collaboration with China can represent more than 30% of output

The report, released last week, highlighted financial dependence on income flows from China among UK universities and called for more oversight on research collaboration, particularly in certain key fields where collaboration with China can represent more than 30% of output.

“In the report, there is a call for recruitment diversification, but there’s simultaneously a recognition that engagement with China is clearly important to the sector as a whole,” said David Law, academic director global partnerships at Keele University, during an online Q&A on the report’s findings.

“For particular institutions, and I would include my own, the diversification suggestion is really not possible if we want to grow our recruitment from a low base to where it really ought to be. We have to have a China-first policy.”

“We have to have a China-first policy”

He further described being disturbed to see that China was not given more attention in the UK government’s international education strategy, adding that “China is relegated, in a sense, to a second tier”.

China is the important market for us. We used to have 10 years ago a much higher international population. For various reasons it’s declined.

“My job is to try and restore it, and the way to restore it is, first of all, to work with Chinese universities on partnerships, to work in ways that will produce transition through to the UK.

Victoria Strudwick, international partnerships manager at the ‎University of Warwick, also critiqued the focus on the risks of engagement as not addressing the underlying causes.

There’s relatively little acknowledgement that those links have been forced out of necessity in terms of the research funding environment and marketisation of higher education in terms of student recruitment,” she said.

One of the report’s authors, Jo Johnson, responded that there are “plenty of other students from other countries around the world looking for a first class higher education”.

“Students are applying from India, Malaysia, Nigeria and so on,” he said.

“No one wants to make their institution’s future dependent on what could be a volatile source of income. That’s very poor financial management.”

“No one wants to make their institution’s future dependent on what could be a volatile source of income. That’s very poor financial management”

Fellow panellist and report author Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, did however acknowledge the difficult of diversifying away from China, particularly in the face of an expected decline in EU students.

“China has fairly low cost of acquisition in terms of international students, whereas in other markets recruitment is much more expensive,” she said.

“It’s also fair to say that the UK has spent the past 20 years or so building significant recruitment infrastructures in China.”

Johnson also emphasised that measures to map and monitor dependencies need to be put in place as geopolitical tensions rise, pointing to events earlier in March where the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced sanctions against researchers from the UK, Sweden and Germany, as well as the Mercator Institute for China Studies, as part of tit-for-tat sanctions against the EU over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

“[Last] week’s events, I think, really highlighted the importance of our undertaking,” Johnson said.

“And we do need to put in place plans to mitigate risk.”

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