Having risked blowing the United Kingdom’s research relationship with Europe through a three-year post-Brexit delay in rejoining the multi-billion-euro Horizon programme, British universities now face being caught up in another international government fallout, this time with China – its fastest growing research partner.
With the United States and China locked in an intensifying contest for technological leadership that is drawing in the UK and many other countries, the threat that global scientific endeavour will be disrupted by geopolitics – with knock-on effects on student and academic mobility – has risen sharply over the last two years, warns a new report.
Published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the report titled The China Question Revisited: ‘De-risking’ higher education and research, highlights how growing geopolitical tensions and national security concerns have prompted the British government to adopt a tougher stance toward Beijing.
This is a big shift from the ‘golden era’ of UK-China relations under pre-Brexit Conservative premier David Cameron, who prioritised trade and investment over national security.
So far, current UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has resisted calls for a ‘decoupling’ between China and the West, advocated by hawks including a number on his Conservative benches in Parliament. However, in May Sunak did describe China as the biggest challenge to global security and prosperity at the end of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.
Important income for research universities
This has helped to focus UK higher education and research stakeholders on the considerable challenges of ‘de-risking’ higher education and research engagement with China, which is now the single most important source of international fee income for the UK’s research-intensive universities.
Chinese students are vital to the talent pipeline into research careers and a wider STEM skills base in the UK, says the report co-authored by Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate Analytics, Jo Johnson, a former Conservative minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation, and Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight. Adams and Johnson are both visiting professors in the Policy Institute at King’s College London.
Turning to calls by the government and Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, for universities to reduce their dependence on China, the report concludes that such measures have in some cases stalled or are going backwards.
OfS announced in June that it had written to 23 higher education providers with large numbers of students from China “to ensure they have contingency plans in case recruitment patterns change and there is a sudden drop in income from overseas students”.
Although the regulator did not name the institutions, it was clearly focusing on the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, given that 17 of the 18 higher education institutions with the most Chinese students on campus in 2021 to 2022 were Russell Group members.
In 2021 to 2022 one fifth of UK higher education institutions hosted over four-fifths of the overall Chinese students in full-time education.
University College London leads the pack, with almost 11,000 Chinese students out of a non-UK student body of around 24,000, followed by the universities of Glasgow, Manchester and Edinburgh as well as King’s College London.
While the Chinese student body remains the largest international group in the UK, it has declined slightly as international recruitment shifts from first degree to one-year taught masters programmes, which have seen exceptional growth in students from India and Nigeria, particularly for less-selective post-1992 institutions which charge lower international tuition fees.
Another major change since the full implementation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in 2020 to 2021 has been the notable decline in EU countries as the top source markets for bachelor degree students, with the number of first degree EU students in the UK falling to 84,200 in 2021 to 2022, from 106,500 the previous year – a decline of 21%.
There has also been a drop in EU demand for doctoral studies in the UK since Brexit, which has added to the dependence of the UK research base on Chinese doctoral students.
The proportion of Chinese full-time doctoral entrants in UK higher education has increased significantly over the past five years, from 17% in 2017 to 2018 to 28% in 2021 to 2022, says the report.