State of Affairs: UK-China education relations

It’s a 160 years since the first ever Chinese student graduated from a British university. In gaining an MD from Edinburgh in 1855, the distinguished physician Dr Huang Kuan was also one of very first to study medicine abroad. In the week that President Xi Jinping makes the first State Visit to the UK in a decade, what’s the current prognosis for UK-China higher education relations?

One of the warm-up acts for the President’s visit was the 8th annual UK-China education summit, held last month in Greenwich’s magnificent Old Naval College. A new, updated, framework agreement was signed, setting out the “shared interests” and objectives between the governments of the UK and Beijing’s Ministry of Education.

More ambitious in tone than previous iterations, and aligned (in language at least) with key strategies such as the Productivity Plan, the Dowling Review and China’s Long Term Education Plan, the agreement prioritised partnerships and policy; mobility of students, teachers and researchers; and collaboration across quality assurance and new modes of delivery.

Of course, the sheer scale of China as a country, economy and education system means the numbers on paper often give the impression of a lop-sided relationship. Whilst more than 90,000 Chinese students studied at university in the UK last year, around 6,000 British students went the other way. But thanks to initiatives such as Generation UK, the numbers of British students going to China has increased by 50% in the last year, with many opting to combine study with work placements.

Chinese education planning and policy is also increasingly geared towards collaboration that enables innovation, links with industry and entrepreneurialism. The recent launch of the Tsinghua-led Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education Alliance sees a group of leading universities come together with 50 enterprises to share best practice and opportunities for start-ups and enterprise education.

As those political titans Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina have demonstrated recently, it has become a cliché to state that China struggles to innovate. And although the country is currently down at 29th in the Global Innovation Index (the UK is in second place), China’s record in developing new business models (particularly in social media and digital platforms) far outstrips those Western digital behemoths that struggle to turn a profit.

As President Xi is fond of saying, there is a real “win-win” potential in deepening enterprise-university links within UK-China education co-operation at individual, institutional and industry levels.

With an economy so large that last year it paid an interest bill that was roughly equivalent to entire GDP of India (and larger than both South Korea and Mexico), the government is promoting the role of research universities, home and international graduates, and increasingly that of new universities of applied technology, in the decade of economic transformation to come.

The UK is already the leader in the local TNE market, with over 250 approved degree level UK-China joint programmes and institutes. But just as China’s national economic strategy seeks a shift from “made in China” to “innovated in China”, it is also increasingly exporting its own higher education across the globe. TNE provision in Qatar and Malaysia is developing rapidly, and there are nearly 500 Confucius Institutes across the world.

Just last month, Vice Premier Liu Yandong launched the new Cardiff-Beijing Chinese Studies Joint College. Students from both countries will study together, following a collaboratively developed curriculum, with time spent in Wales, China and in industry. This is the first such joint Chinese college to be established in the UK.

Liverpool and Nottingham’s pioneering partnerships, in particular, continue to go from strength to strength. But as well as directly exporting its students, culture and higher education models, China is also beginning to punch its weight as a destination for students.

It is now the third largest host country (behind the UK and US), and aims to reach half a million international students by 2020 (there were just under 400,000 in 2014). There are more and more scholarship and placement opportunities, as well as joint-research opportunities for established and early career researchers.

Students of international relations will tell you that ping pong diplomacy marked a turning point in West-East relations in the 1970s, but contemporary bilateral summits often pursue their own monotonous baseline rallies of facts, virtual backslaps and safety first approach.

However, last month’s summit saw BIS ministers and the British Council raise the potential consequences of China’s forthcoming NGO law with their counterparts. This policy change could lead to universities facing increased checks before operating in China, impeding or delaying important collaborations. Although not guaranteed to become law, ministers and officials from the Chinese Ministry of Education were keen to assure government and the sector that the policy may actually further promote university collaborations.

President Xi is expected to visit a couple of universities during the week, with a focus on science collaboration and the creative industries. During September’s events, Vice Premier Liu spent time at institutions in London and Oxford, as well as the joint-college launch and a keynote speech in Cardiff.

The evolution of UK-China relations, in the 160 years since Dr Huang Kuan’s graduation, was neatly illustrated by Madame Liu’s final university appointment: She opened the new home for London South Bank University’s Confucius Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine, the world’s first such institute.

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