Higher education and research are among the most internationally collaborative fields of human activity.
Yet, as we warned last year in The China Question: Managing Risks and Maximising Benefits from Partnership in Higher Education and Research, past patterns of internationalisation will, in key respects, provide a poor guide to what’s to come.
With the US and China locked in an intensifying contest for technological leadership that will potentially draw in many other countries, the chances that the global scientific endeavour will be disrupted by geopolitics, with knock-on effects on student and academic mobility, have risen sharply over the last eighteen months.
During this time, western knowledge production systems have been through an exercise in disentangling themselves from Russian state-linked partners: an invaluable fire drill, yet a tiny fraction of what would be involved in any abrupt disengagement from China if the geopolitics go from bad to worse in East Asia. As our more recent report on Russia, China and the Geopolitics of Science argued: isolating Russia’s research system in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine has had little effect on global science; but taking a similar approach to China would trigger a profound shock to the global knowledge economy.
Of all the triggers for decoupling with China, Taiwan looms largest. Seasoned China-watchers believe President Xi has sounded the bugle on the island, making it clear he regards reunification with the mainland as a vital step in his project for the grand rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. While Xi has asserted that Beijing would “continue to strive for peaceful reunification”, he has asserted that it would “never promise to renounce the use of force”.
Even if one applies a heavy discount to statements from the US military leadership, their warnings must be increasingly thought-provoking for university administrators. The Head of the US Navy recently commented that the American military must be prepared for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan before 2024. Admiral Mike Galday said that he had in mind “a 2022 window or a 2023 window”, adding “I don’t mean to be alarmist…it’s just that we can’t wish that away”.
The state department has reportedly shared research with partners and allies that estimates a Chinese blockade of Taiwan would spark $2.5tn in annual economic losses. With over fifty per cent of their non-EU international students from China and with big proportions of their most impactful research in key fields undertaken in collaboration with Chinese partners, UK research intensive universities would be among the hardest hit by this immense shock to the global economy.
Our research intensive universities have particularly deep relations with China, both in international student recruitment and in research partnerships. For example, six Russell Group universities had more than 5,000 students from China in 2020/21. One institution alone currently has more than 11,000 Chinese students: roughly a quarter of a total student body of some 44,000.
Efforts to support diversification of the international student body have yielded little progress. Research by Janet Ilieva of Education Insight for Universities UK International points to an increase in the number of UK higher education institutions recruiting more than half of their undergraduate students from just one country. At postgraduate level, the number of higher education institutions recruiting more than half of their postgraduate students from one country has increased over the past three years from 42 per cent to 50 per cent.
Maximising the benefits from research collaboration and from student and academic mobility, while managing the downsides, including the risks to national security from bad faith actors and the dangers of over-reliance on income from a single country, is a delicate but not impossible task. The new Research Collaboration Advice Team, established in BEIS last year, is providing individual institutions with guidance on potential partnerships as they walk this tightrope.
The need for contingency
There is no substitute, however, for the kind of system-wide contingency planning that is still needed.
Just as the Office for Students needs to focus on threats to institutional resilience and system-wide financial sustainability arising over-reliance on income from one country, UK Research & Innovation needs to step up the pace of its work on how to mitigate any potential damage to UK research capabilities from disorderly disengagement. This is going to require detailed analysis of the many areas in which UK science is now deeply enmeshed with a country that has risen up the ranks of the UK’s partners so rapidly that it is now second in importance only to the US.
Engagement with China is so much more pervasive than with Russia that it will be critical to have clear criteria in place, well in advance of any crisis, to support universities in planning for potential withdrawal from collaborations should that be required. Detailed work must start on how to minimise future impacts on UKRI funding to UK organisations and on scoping options for different partners to take work forward so that internationally collaborative research can continue by other means.