David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There’s two contemporary concerns about the status of China in UK universities – one about finances and one about soft power.

Both these encompass every aspect of what a university does, but the focus on students ties in to the archetypal UK political concerns around immigration, and has (until very recently) dominated debates.

It was a theme she had

When we think about financial power we tend to think about recruitment – with overseas students not subject to fee caps and with China being a common source of international students there is a large proportion of the income of some providers that can be attributed to China. Though some people (including the Home Secretary) see this as an immigration issue, for Chinese students a stay in the UK is focused almost entirely – as we shall see – on study.

Overall, some 6.8 per cent of 2020-21 full time undergraduate students were from China. For full-time postgraduates the comparable figure is 35.2 percent – breaking this down shows 38.3 per cent of taught postgraduates and 21.85 per cent of research postgraduates.

As far as international recruitment patterns go, China is a very Russell Group thing – those 24 providers recruited 56 per cent of full time Chinese undergraduates and 76 per cent of full time Chinese postgraduates in 2020-21.

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And they’re proud of where they came

When we think of soft power the canonical example is the 30 Confucius institutes in UK providers – Chinese state-supported outposts offering support to UK universities on issues of “language and culture”, though often described as de-facto Chinese government outposts in the UK. Long controversial in the sector, this year saw Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledge to ban their future operation during the summer’s leadership contest – a pledge that was recently repeated by Security Minister Tom Tugenhat.

As far as I have been able to find, there is no evidence of a link between the recruitment of Chinese students and the establishment of Confucius institutes. Some hosts (for example, UCL) have experienced dramatic increases in the proportion of the student body arriving from China, others (for example, Liverpool) have experienced similarly dramatic decreases over the last seven years of data. Neither are Confucius institutes concentrated in areas with large Chinese populations.

The top section of this chart shows the difference in the proportion of students from China between 2014-15 and 2020-21 – the bottom section shows the actual proportion in 2020-21. The 30 providers with Confucius institutes are shown in orange. You can use the filters at the top to look at students studying at particular levels and modes.

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You may be interested in the international population in your own provider. I have a chart for you here. Again, the message here is of diversity within the sector – who knew, for instance, that King’s College London leads the way with students from Italy? Or that most UK Jamaican students are at Ulster? Or that most students from Hong Kong are at Hertfordshire?

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Saw the stars crashing

It is difficult to disaggregate fee income by international domicile using public data – the best I can offer is a look at the proportion of a provider’s income that comes from non-EU overseas student fees.

The chart on the left ranks providers by the proportion of provider income that comes from non-UK and non-EU tuition fees, with the two bars on the right showing income in cash terms (the first showing a breakdown of mode and level for international fees against total income, the second showing all income by the standard top headings.

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Here, we see the University of the Arts London, Heriot-Watt, and the LSE are the three major providers most exposed to any fluctuation in demand, at least as of 2020-21.

I can feel the distance getting close

Thus far we’ve been talking about Chinese students as if they have no personal agency – in reality Chinese students are a diverse group, attending university abroad for a variety of reasons. For example, a 2018 Bright Futures report found that Chinese students are concentrated in business and economics courses (whereas, both in China and in Germany Chinese students tend to study the sciences, engineering, or computing), with the availability and quality of provision in their preferred subject a key driver of their choice of provider. And as with all students, the “hygiene factors” of accommodation and student support play an important role.

In regulation we very rarely look at the experiences of students from individual nations. However we do know, for instance, that non-UK students are more positive about most aspects of their experience than their UK counterparts – and are more likely to continue with and complete their course.

Once upon a time somebody ran

What do they do when they complete the course? For Chinese undergraduate students, at least, the default is to do another one. According to LEO data for 2019-20, some 69.1 per cent of Chinese graduates were in further study one year out. So welcoming undergraduates means that we are also welcoming postgraduates – with both soft power and financial benefits for the UK.

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On the other hand, 25 per cent of undergraduates were “unmatched” in LEO – basically meaning that they were neither paying UK tax or claiming UK benefits. They’d gone home, in other words – something that was true for 87.1 per cent of Chinese postgraduates in the same year. Less than three per cent of Chinese post graduates were working (without further study) in the UK a year on – but the figure is larger for postgraduates five years on.

Melting your heart of stone

There is an undertow of concern about Chinese student numbers in the light of deteriorating international relations. Although the Home Office finds that India has just passed China as the UK’s top source of international students, and growth is also very strong in Nigeria, this appears to remain.

As Jim noted on Wonkhe recently, Chinese students are less likely to bring dependants with them to study, and are more likely to attend Russell Group universities. What we’ve seen of the growth of Chinese recruitment over the last decade is very much an old-fashioned model of international recruitment, rapidly being eclipsed by a growth in students with very different expectations of what it may be like to study in the UK.

With large parts of the sector viable only because of strong international recruitment, indiscriminate or poorly considered restrictions would have a catastrophic impact on opportunities for home students, and would see the UK becoming less influential on a global stage.

Clearly there does need to be safeguards – and students should be able to expect a high quality experience (both in academic terms and considering accommodation and student support) on arrival. But the same should be said for all students.

One response to “The state of recruitment from China

  1. Some interesting numbers, my local university has a huge percentage of Norwegian students apparently, 42% v 1.6% Chinese, yet the city appears to be full of Chinese students, the effect of a Russell group university’s satellite campus probably. I note their numbers are huge, significantly dwarfing the other university and non-Chinese students in their city too. Yet it seems the CCP’s reach within that university’s student body is far worse than many imagine, with the CCP ‘political officers’ within the student cohort usually being outed by being voted the ‘best students’ by the other Chinese students, even when they are totally useless academically, that that university has a large and very active Confucius Institute with embedded CCP officers in university admin roles should come as no surprise, nor its over dependence on Chinese money…

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