One of the most intriguing aspects of the 2015 HE Power List is that our prime minister falls below the leader of the Chinese Community Party, and the European Commissioner (which will no doubt please the ‘better off out’ brigade).
The Prime Minister’s position naturally reflects his decision to let the Treasury take the lead on higher education policy, but it is also a result of the sector’s international reach. All universities, to some extent, are global institutions. Some have set up campuses in Asia, others have established franchise partnerships. All are engaged in international research collaborations and all recruit students from overseas.
And most of that is positive, but where the sector has been really successful in attracting investment from overseas, universities are now increasingly reliant on those international sources of income to deliver world-leading research and a quality student experience. To put it in the crudest terms, money = power. Brussels and Beijing have it in bucket loads and are spending it via fees and research grants on our universities.
There was a huge amount of higher education expertise represented on the Power List judging panel, but it would be stretch to say that any were experts on Chinese policy and the power dynamics at play in Beijing. Xi Jinping (6th), may or may not take an active interest in higher education, but he is sixth on our list because he is the most powerful person in China, and China has become the dominant overseas market for English universities.
China’s importance has been accentuated by the Coalition’s visa policies, which had a devastating impact on the Indian and South East Asian market, but has seemingly not affected China to anywhere near the same extent. In 2008-9 one in five new international students was from China, in 2012-13 it was one in three. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that around a quarter of all postgraduate taught students are Chinese. Many postgraduate courses up and down the country would collapse without Chinese students. So the financial and intellectual futures of English universities are reliant on a Chinese government that remains committed to their students attending English universities.
Jean Claude Junker (7th) is ideologically committed to deeper integration, has called for the EU to create an army, and according to the press enjoys all the grace and favour trimmings that go with being the EU Commissioner. Yet five months into the job and his relationship with higher education has already faltered. His proposal to cut €2.7bn from the EU’s research budget will disproportionately hurt the UK, as our universities do very well out of this funding stream. Nevertheless, around 10% of UK universities’ research income will still come from the EU. So for good or ill, he is man with significant power over our universities’ research capacity. He can’t be ignored.
The additions of Xi Jinping and Jean Clause Junker may have surprised a few readers but the panel couldn’t ignore the financial leverage they have over English universities. That’s not to say it is a bad thing (where would be without it…?). But it highlights that in our global sector, universities aren’t only shaped by the whims of Whitehall. They are at the behest of Brussels and Beijing too.