M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 161

The China question: Managing risks and maximizing benefits from partnership in higher education and research

Jo Johnson
Jonathan Adams
Janet Ilieva
Jonathan Grant
Jess Northend
Niall Sreenan
Vivienne Moxham-Hall
Kristin Greene
Seema Mishra


Executive Summary

The UK urgently needs to put in place a robust framework for engaging China in
research and higher education (HE). China is set to overtake the US to become both
the world’s biggest spender on R&D and the UK’s most significant research partner,
raising pressing questions for policymakers at a time of rising geopolitical tensions.

The extensive relationship with China across our university system, in both teaching
and research, is inadequately mapped. The UK needs to do a better job of measuring,
managing and mitigating risks that are at present poorly understood and monitored.

Our research shows that collaboration between China and the UK has increased
from fewer than 100 co-authored papers before 1990, to around 750 per year in 2000
(about 1 per cent of UK output), and then to 16,267 papers in 2019 (about 11 per
cent of UK output).

There are now no fewer than 20 subject categories in which collaborations with China
account for more than 20 per cent of the UK’s high-impact research. In three key
subjects – automation and control systems; telecommunications; and materials science, ceramics – collaborations with China represent more than 30 per cent of such output.

This heightened degree of integration makes any idea of decoupling from China both
unviable and unlikely to be in the national interest but does signal the need for a clear and strategic approach to research collaboration, capable of mitigating real risks.

The research highlights the poor quality of data on international education and the
need for greater awareness of its value to the UK economy. HE exports to China
represent the UK’s single largest services export to any country. The government
should avoid caps on international students in aggregate or any form of discrimination by nationality.

But reliance on significant tuition fee income from Chinese students to cross-subsidise loss-making research creates a strategic dependency and potential vulnerability. The sector regulator, the Office for Students, should more actively monitor this risk and require institutions to have plans to mitigate it, including through recruitment diversification strategies.

This is a pressing need as the growth in capacity and institutional quality of China’s own HE system is likely to place a significant downward pressure on student
enrolments internationally over the medium term. China, over the next decade, is
likely to consolidate its appeal as a global destination for HE.

Our research shows that Chinese students in the UK have very high overall satisfaction rates and a very low drop-out rate, indicating that UK universities are in a strong position to attract a significant proportion of those students who may still choose to study beyond China.

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