Chinese university students in Britain: challenges and opportunities

The United Kingdom (UK) hosts some of the most prestigious universities in the world. They are underpinned by a degree of academic rigour that is recognised globally – making them a desirable location for research funding – and boast some beautiful historic campuses. It is no surprise that they are a hot destination for international students, not least from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The United States (US), Australia, and the UK are the top three destinations for Chinese students. Indeed, in recent years, interest in studying in the UK from international Chinese students has increased[↗] – there are now more in the UK than there are in Australia (see Graph 1). The reasons for this are many.

There is, first and foremost, the impact of Covid-19. International border restrictions inhibited the movement of all international students, many who did not wish to commence or resume their studies online – this was particularly true regarding Australia, whose extremely strict border measures ended[↗] countrywide only earlier this year. 

There is also the impact of geopolitics. Both the US-PRC[↗] and Australia-PRC[↗] relationships have deteriorated in recent years. Strategic competition has ramped up as Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has continued to take the PRC down a more authoritarian path. Joe Biden, US President, has continued many aspects of Donald Trump’s competitive approach to the PRC, and paints this competition as a Manichean struggle between opposing political systems, a struggle that defines the US strategy towards the PRC. Beijing’s use of economic statecraft against Australia continues, and senior-level dialogue remains frozen – the relationship is arguably at its lowest point ever.

Suspicions regarding international Chinese students have increased as a result, particularly in Australia[↗]. Chinese state-affiliated reporting[↗] has also taken an overtly critical turn of both the US and Australia, particularly regarding the handling of Covid-19 by the US, instilling doubts about the safety of America and dampening the allure of both countries.

These two factors – geopolitics and Covid-19 – have also combined to facilitate cases of Sinophobia in the US and Australia. This is a clear cut deterrent for international Chinese students, and even saw the PRC issue travel warnings to its citizens travelling to both Australia[↗] and the US[↗].

The UK has experienced many similar developments. Covid-19 shut the country down. Bilateral relations with the PRC have seen a steady decline[↗]. Cases of Sinophobia have also risen[↗]

The UK, however, has displayed a reluctance to culturally cut itself off from the PRC, and has been careful in how wider geopolitical concerns influence domestic debate. As Her Majesty’s (HM) Government realised the illusions of its ‘golden era’ and has been forced to think critically and strategically about its relationship with the PRC, a high degree of pragmatism in ensuring bilateral relations do not reach an undesirable low has been displayed. 

Indeed, the Great Britain China Centre recently launched its Future Leaders Programme[↗], aiming to enhance the understanding of British policymakers and officials over two years on the PRC. This is particularly unlike the experience in Australia, where research grants for ‘China studies’ have recently been vetoed[↗] by the federal government.

(Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency)

Some complications

As more international students from the PRC come to the UK, one aspect that Britain has to be cautious about is becoming over reliant on the fees these students pay to fund their universities.

Funding for UK universities has been shifting[↗] from funding councils to student fees, with the majority[↗] of funding now being sourced from the latter country-wide.

It is estimated[↗] that approximately 17% of university funding in the UK comes from international student fees. This is a large portion, and is higher in some institutions, particularly universities in Scotland where domestic students study for free.

Chinese students account[↗] for nearly double the number coming from India, and seven times the amount coming from Nigeria, the second and third largest countries of origin for students in the UK respectively. This fact, taken together with British universities’ growing reliance on student fees, underscores the growing necessity of Chinese international student fees in funding higher education in Britain.

If there was a rapid decline in numbers of international students from the PRC, British universities could be severely impacted unless measures are taken in the near future to diversify funding away from international student fees. In this endeavour, universities could investigate implementing a cap on the percentage of these fees received from one country.

Students from the PRC also bring over a diverse array of political views, many times different to that of the average Briton. The political views of someone from abroad will almost always contain elements of conflict to what is commonly held in their new home. Universities are the ideal place for these differences to be discussed, examined, and acknowledged in an open environment, and many British institutions provide[↗] this platform, one aspect that makes them so attractive..

The problem lies in when these differences are elevated to a plane above debate, and affect the relationship between the university, the teacher, and the student. There are many cases[↗] of Chinese students complaining to, and applying pressure on, universities because of their representations of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet. This is an unwanted development. The intellectual debate of conflicting views should be encouraged at university. Allowing them to interfere in the operations of the university and the content taught should not. 

These two issues are actually linked, and it is up to British universities to be robust in ensuring that increasing reliance on Chinese student fees does not result in them sacrificing academic integrity in an endeavour to attract more capital, or prevent its loss. 

These issues are pressing and dominate the debate around rising numbers of international students from the PRC in Britain. There are also many opportunities resulting from this increase, however.

Some opportunities

British culture has a strong global influence. People from all over the world come to view Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster, and pay large sums to watch the world’s best compete in the English Premier League. They also come to capitalise on the economic and intellectual opportunities that a culturally rich and open society has to offer. 

Chinese students coming to study in Britain will be exposed to this way of life and the opportunities an open democratic society has to offer, as well as the many aspects that make it a global cultural leader. Sure, these students may already be aware of what makes the UK special. But some will not, and life in the UK may expose them to something they desire and give them new ideas, ideas they may take back home or further develop in Britain.

International students coming from the PRC will also make connections with people in the UK during their studies. This furthers cultural exchange between Britain and the PRC, as well as people-to-people ties. This should be encouraged, particularly between students, and British universities can make a better effort in fostering this – not lumping international Chinese students together in student housing blocs being a good place to start. Many Chinese students stay in the UK after their studies and use their education and new found connections for the betterment of British society. 

Geopolitical and strategic considerations

There is certainly a geopolitical aspect to increasing numbers of international students from the PRC studying in the UK. The PRC was labelled a ‘systemic competitor’ in HM Government’s Integrated Review[↗]. So, is Britain not going against its own interests in bettering the intellectual development and prowess of Chinese citizens that may return home?

Perhaps, but viewing the British education of every international student from the PRC as something that serves the CCP’s wider interests is overtly discriminatory and lacks nauce. Such speculation is certainly not grounds for rejecting potential students. There is a clear difference between the CCP and Chinese citizens. To be sure, British universities need to be vigilant in ensuring the safety of their intellectual property and that they are collaborating with, and admitting, well-intentioned students and researchers. This is true of all students, regardless of their origin.

If actions were taken by the CCP that sees geopolitical competition spiral out of control and bilateral relations with the UK become dysfunctional, then there is perhaps solid grounds for Britain to reevaluate its academic relationship with the PRC. Such an outcome would invite steps to root-out any sources of direct and in-direct influence the PRC has over British society, politics, and its institutions. We are seeing this occur now[↗] with Russia in response to its renewed aggression against Ukraine. 

In fact, in this scenario, there is another opportunity for Britain. Improving the quality of Chinese innovation and research at home are key tenets[↗] of the ‘Made in China 2025’ project, and British universities play a vital role in educating the PRC’s gifted students. Many universities in the UK have also partnered with various Chinese institutions in research endeavours and have campuses in the PRC, such as the University of Liverpool campus in Suzhou and University of Nottingham campus in Ningbo. If the UK were to seriously reevaluate its academic relationship with the PRC, it would impact the CCP’s aims for improving domestic research, innovation, and ultimately the quality of Chinese universities, significantly.

Conclusion

The debate around the impacts of increasing numbers of Chinese students coming to study in the UK will continue. 

There are certainly complications associated with this issue, and they should be tackled in a non-discriminatory manner to ensure academic integrity in, and that the reputation of, British universities remain strong. This increase also presents many opportunities, now and potentially in the future, that should be recognised and capitalised on by the UK.

Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.

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