openDemocracyUK: Opinion

UK universities’ dangerous reliance on China is being driven by marketisation

Institutions are being forced to risk academic freedom under current funding model.  

Bill Spence
23 October 2020
University College London, pictured, receives £127 million in admissions fees from Chinese students, the highest sum of any university in the UK.
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PA Images

The pandemic has revealed that the finances of many of the UK’s best universities are highly dependent on international students, whose numbers rose by 24% between 2008 and 2019. But what is astonishing is that this increase has been almost entirely due to a rise in admissions from China

The last decade has also seen the rapid marketisation of UK higher education, making universities compete fiercely for students and funding, along with the spread of league tables. This has led to large-scale spending – on buildings and new layers of administrative staff.

These two key developments are consequences of the way governments have funded higher education in the UK. Currently, a university loses money for every UK science, engineering or medicine student it teaches, and makes a small surplus on humanities and social sciences students. Research loses money, and the more research a university does the more it loses. 

For most of the country’s leading research-led multi-faculty universities this is a major headache. Their core business model loses money, and they need a surplus to compete in the market system. The main way to survive has been to recruit more high-fee international students. And, since 2009, essentially all of these additional students have come from China. 

There are manifold issues with this. One is simply risk: when a key part of the surplus that universities rely on is sourced from a one-party state with a leader for life, then this surplus can be rapidly affected by political or economic developments.

The other serious issue is the erosion of values. For example, there are currently tens of thousands of students of UK universities, not counted in the figures above, who are studying for UK-accredited degrees in Chinese campuses, where all access to information is tightly controlled by the government. 

The Chinese internet giant Alibaba is aggressively promoting a service to UK universities to facilitate internet access in China. Students who have returned to China during the pandemic have struggled to access webinars and course material online because of the country’s internet restrictions. Most Australian universities have signed up, as have many in other countries. Four UK universities recently joined a pilot and at least one – Queen Mary University of London – will implement it this year. 

Under Chinese law, Alibaba will be required to monitor usage and block internet content on prohibited topics. Universities may have no awareness of any such actions. This will dissuade lecturers from even mentioning some topics in order to avoid putting students at risk. 

Only permitting course materials or discussions that align with the Chinese leadership isn’t freedom of inquiry or speech. These compromises are hard to justify given rising nationalism, genocidal actions in Xinjiang and suppression of freedom in Hong Kong.

Concerns like this are growing, and have been raised recently in the UK and in Canada. Oxford and some leading US universities are now concealing student identities in some courses to shield them from potential threats.

A report by the Foreign Affairs Committee last year warned of “mounting evidence of foreign influence in UK universities”, and the security vetting of students has been expanded. Similar concerns about censorship, aiding Chinese military and security agencies, spying and cyber attacks, and the monitoring and intimidation of Chinese students and pro-democracy advocates have been raised during investigations in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Domestic politics are certainly operating here – China’s growth is threatening Western political and economic hegemony and control of resources worldwide. Some populist right-wing Western governments and movements, and their supporters in the media, are using these issues as part of a patriotic appeal to voters. Nevertheless, the problems are real, and mounting.

There are multiple benefits to both sides from educating international students, and students from China will always be welcome in the UK, like those from any other country. They study overseas to advance their opportunities, often supported by significant family sacrifices. Their insights broaden the experience of local students and in turn they have access to information that is not available in China. International students are also not displacing domestic students, they are subsidising them.

But the fact remains that UK universities have a rapidly increasing reliance on income from a country whose government actively suppresses freedom of speech views it as an alien Western ideal. This dependence is both a subtle and explicit threat to those values here. 

Universities UK has recently released guidance on managing risks in internationalisation, but this does not address the key issue. In the UK, universities have been forced into this situation by the marketisation of higher education, the student funding regime and the failure to fully fund research. Until these drivers are removed universities will be further pushed down a perilous path where maintaining their financial health will bring them into increasing conflict with their basic values.

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