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Carma Elliot, Director China, British Council

Carma Elliot OBE read Chinese at university, has lived in the country for most of her adult life, with stints in Saudi and three or four European countries. She joined the British Council China in 2013. She spoke to The PIE News about the importance of safety and employability for prospective Chinese students, and China’s inbound ambitions.

 

Photo: British Council

"The trends are very much in China’s favour because increasingly foreign students are attracted to having experience in China"

The PIE: How does the British Council support the UK international education sector?

Carma Elliot: We are here to conduct research and analysis and help individual universities or groups of universities. We are here to support people in-country around navigating policy and regulations and we obviously work very closely with UUKi given their role in the UK. We have a lot of insight and resources available for the UK sector if they are working in China – we’re here to help them do that.

The PIE: What drives Chinese students to study abroad?

CE: If you look at the statistics, the number of outgoing students from China has increased substantially since 2016. There are probably around 600,000 Chinese students studying across the world, with the US the number one destination, the UK second, followed by others like Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

“China still remains the world’s most important source of international students for the foreseeable future”

At some point, reasonably soon, the declining demographic trend will overtake the demand for overseas study. It’s difficult to say exactly when that tail off will start. China still remains the world’s most important source of international students for the foreseeable future and I think that is still some way off.

The PIE: What about inbound mobility?

CE: China has very much had overt ambitions of becoming the number one receiver of international students by 2049. That date is important as it is the country’s anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.  There are already 450,000 international students in China, and there has been a very steep increase in the numbers of incoming students.

China has very rapidly boosted its efforts to recruit international students with the internationalisation of the sector in mind. The benefits of that are the international student cohort and their value for the domestic student cohort, as a soft power tool in the same way that the UK and others have internationalised much earlier.

“China has very much had overt ambitions of becoming the number one receiver of international students by 2049”

The government is very much on that wave now and investing heavily in scholarships. They’ve also been encouraged by other governments as well around building literacy about China among younger generations. Generation UK is an example of that.

The PIE: How many scholarships are available?

CE: There are 10,000 Chinese government scholarships to the UK alone, there is a lot of support in each direction for the internationalisation of the sector. The trends are very much in China’s favour because increasingly foreign students are attracted to having experience in China – and experience in China on their CV is a distinguishing factor.

The opportunities are there and that’s beneficial in terms of employability.

The PIE: What are the trends in TNE? You mentioned a slowdown.

CE: Around the slowdown in TNE approval rates, there was a peak in 2013 after 20 years of TNE programs in China. The government, after a review, is looking to tighten and reveal the impact of that. There are elements that need to be looked at around quality. They are really looking for quality over quantity.

In the longer term, the impact of the UK will need to be more aligned with China’s needs and proving that their TNE programs will address their key development priorities that China has. I referenced the focus on engineering and advanced engineering in particular.

“The trends are very much in China’s favour…students are attracted to having experience in China”

The PIE: So TNE needs to be tailored to needs in-country..

CE: Those are the kinds of sectors of interest, and key factors are innovation, creativity and looking at geographical areas. Those are key factors in creating and maintaining existing TNE programs, but also if you want to see new proposals for TNE programs approved.

I don’t think from the recent review that there is any indication that actually the value that the government and individual universities attach to UK-China partnerships in TNE has declined.

The Chinese government and ministries see the value in TNE and international relationships and would like more foreign programs. At the conference, we were planning for the joint-institute alliance for CEAIE and the British Council. That joint institute alliance is very much about promoting those elements of best practice, in line with Chinese government regulations.

That creeping competition is both positive and a challenge to respond to, given the scale of which the UK has engaged in TNE with China in the past

The Chinese government has been very transparent about quality over quantity in what it wants to see when setting up those joint programs. If you are looking at it in terms of the competitive landscape, other countries like the US are very much increasing their TNE activity in China. That creeping competition is both positive and a challenge to respond to, given the scale of which the UK has engaged in TNE with China in the past.

The PIE: What impact could geopolitics have? Could a similar situation occur to that of the Saudi government in Canada?

CE: From that point of view, while there are Chinese government programs like the 10,000 scholarships to the UK every year, the majority of Chinese students abroad are self- funded students. You referenced whether the Chinese government would do anything similar to that of the Saudi government in Canada. I think that is less likely given the self-funding nature of the Chinese student body.

Of course, the media, both Chinese and Western, will have an influence on the decision making of the individual and where there are institutional partnerships around TNE and destination countries. Fundamentally, the media is a big part of a country’s soft power.

It’s really important that UK universities demonstrate a continuing warm welcome for international students and the value they attach to an internationalised cohort. That really positive impact that international students have on UK universities is well understood in China.

The PIE: How important are rankings for Chinese students when choosing study destinations?

CE: I think it’s a nuanced process. When you are doing your research you have to start somewhere, and I think you might, at that stage, focus on those universities which you’ve heard of.

I’ve been working in China for a long time and I have had conversations with friends who are parents and are thinking of sending their children overseas. At that stage, they might very well have focussed on the more elite institutions and the rankings of institutions. I think that is not exceptional to China.

There is a focus for people in China to look on Russell Group universities or other groups as being a right fit for their children.

“Chinese parents often cite safety issues”

Now other factors around liveable cities and the student experience are increasingly important. Chinese parents often cite safety issues. And increasingly, of course, people cite, as they would do in the UK, employability.

The PIE: Do you collaborate with the Confucius Institute network?

CE: Yes. In terms of the work with the Confucius Institute, it has been invested very significantly for juniors. We look at how we can actually support the teaching of Chinese in the UK for example, through the provision of language assistants for schools that are teaching Chinese. We have in the last couple of years created a piece of research on the instruction of the Mandarin Excellence Program.

We have discussions with them about different countries, how to use their soft power assets in different ways – and how to maximise them. We are working in the same field.

 

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