Home Education How Britain’s relationship with China’s education system is evolving

How Britain’s relationship with China’s education system is evolving

by Tom Clayburn
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Covid-19 has caused a huge drop in Chinese student applications to UK universities and an increasing number are looking for high quality international courses closer to home: Coventry University’s Dr David Pilsbury believes the UK can continue to benefit from the demand but says educational institutions must be smart in their approach

Chinese students have become hugely important to UK universities over the last decade. In 2008, there were just over 26,000 Chinese students studying higher education in the UK. By the 2018/19 academic year that number had risen to over 120,000 – almost as many as the number of students studying in the UK from all EU countries combined.

The number of Chinese students in the UK dwarfs the 26,600 from India and makes up over 26% of Britain’s entire international student body. According to a survey as part of the New Oriental Annual Report on Chinese Students’ Overseas Study 2020, the UK has become the first choice destination for Chinese students.

As a result, for many universities, there is now an economic reliance on the Chinese student body and as the substantial fall in numbers due to Covid has shown this year, could well threaten the survival of some institutions, especially as the declines have not fallen evenly across the sector.

Covid has impacted the higher education sector as significantly as other areas – and it has suffered a double whammy hit as it is both a service sector and internationally exposed. Some students from China have decided not to enrol at all, whilst others have begun their courses but are studying remotely from China. This has caused a major loss in income, not just from tuition fees, but also from the accommodation, catering and many other services that universities generate revenue from.

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It is hoped that things will eventually return to pre-Covid-19 levels with significant year on year increases in the numbers of Chinese students coming to the UK – though at the moment the signs for the September 2021 intake are difficult to read.  There are some reports of applications being 30 to 50% down for some institutions whereas the recent UCAS figures (though only a small proportion of overseas applicants) showed a healthy increase after looking very poor right up until a week or so before the deadline. The fears of an almost halving in international enrolments did not materialise for the September 2020 intake, with the sector overall being around 20% down, but with most, though not all, seeing sharply reduced intakes in January, to have a poor September this year will be a massive shock to the system.

Dr David Pilsbury

Dr David Pilsbury has been the Deputy Vice Chancellor of International Development at Coventry University since 2008 and also sits on the board of the CBBC.

He explains that when he took over the role, Coventry University – like many other British higher education institutions – did not have any major engagement with China. Most of the activity was limited to pathways, where Chinese students would come to the university for their second or third years to get a UK degree after having begun their studies at a Chinese University. “Meaningful and sophisticated engagement with China was top of my list of things to do,” he says.

Pilsbury knew that a former polytechnic from the West Midlands had little brand recognition in China and utilised the services of CBBC and other organisations with expertise in China, to work out what strategically would be their best path.

“One of the problems in the education sector is that there is often a reluctance to pay even modest sums for membership or services,” he explains. “Coventry has more than doubled its revenue since 2008, and we have done that primarily on the back of growth in overseas student numbers. Which has come because of the insights that the CBBC and others have provided to us. The small costs of fees have provided an incredibly high return on investment.”

However, the landscape is constantly changing. Back in 2008, Pilsbury explains, an overseas degree from almost any University was venerated. “The British educational style, the way we teach, critical appraisal, constructive challenge between student and teacher, students as co-creators” contrasted with much of the Chinese education system then. “Elite Chinese universities attracted the very best students, but outwith the top tier, an international degree showed you had an international perspective and graduates could command significant salary premiums as Chinese companies were trying to import international perspectives to drive organisational change in state owned enterprises and to support an export agenda”

“Much of that has changed now, as the standard of Chinese higher education improves year on year and a number of Chinese universities have soared up the global rankings. The rise in Sino-foreign programmes combined with more international teachers and returning Chinese staff has seen the universities and courses become much more internationalised.”

The four-year Chinese degree courses now also ensure that the final year focuses heavily on preparing students for the workplace, and remaining in China enables students to build networks and explore employability options that can help them upon graduation.

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However, whilst British and Chinese education no longer sits in quite the stark contrast it once did, Pilsbury says that the UK still has many attributes that make it attractive to Chinese students at undergraduate and post-graduate levels. British universities consistently rank among the best in the world; the UK sector is constantly innovating in teaching, and employability and engagement with industry are major themes that benefit students. “Added to which there are all the opportunities outside of university and opportunities to broaden their horizons,” he says. “Studying overseas is transformative for all students and a major contributor to post-graduation employability because of the skills and capabilities it develops, including resilience and ability to work with people from other cultures.”

In this aspect, the UK has special characteristics that make it a particularly attractive destination:

“The people of the UK are welcoming,” he says. Britain is a small country that has everything in it. “London is the only place in the world where everything is in one place. It’s the political capital, financial capital, cultural capital, arts capital. The UK has a long history that is easy to access, a vibrant and easily accessible cultural scene and, Brexit notwithstanding, is still a stepping-stone to 27 other countries in the EU. Not to mention it has a significant Chinese population so Chinese students feel safe, wanted and get real value for the time and money they invest in coming to the UK.”

Beyond inbound students

Attracting students from China and growing the Chinese student population is an important part of the UK’s education sector. “Education is ‘the export that gets imported’ and we have a lot that attracts students, but it’s a relationship based business and you have to invest time, effort, and of course money, in developing relationships with students and stakeholders in China,” says Pilsbury.

Increasingly, British universities have been opening campuses in China and partnering with domestic universities to provide courses, training and exchange programmes. China’s current plan of internationalising its education system is both a huge opportunity and the biggest threat for Britain, Pilsbury points out. But being a part of that internationalisation agenda is essential for continued success.

“When China starts recruiting overseas students seriously then that will be an issue,” he says. Currently, China’s challenge is the lack of English language programmes they offer. Whilst there are international students who go to Chinese universities, it is still the case that outside of a few elite institutions, overseas students primarily go to China to study the language and culture; relatively few international students outside of the diaspora and South East Asia have the language or the interest to get a non-language degree taught in Chinese.

As China’s education system continues to improve and internationalise, the demand for a foreign degree may not be as high as it once was.

This will change as more international staff start teaching courses in English from Chinese universities. Therefore “delivering programmes in China is the future,” says Pilsbury.

“If you want to succeed in China in the long term you need to buy into the educational policy and that is very much about internationalisation at home.”

Currently, the economics are strongly swayed in favour of attracting Chinese students to the UK. Their tuition, accommodation and catering fees provide a significantly higher margin compared to the income provided by overseas courses. Coventry, for example, bills relatively small amounts of the 20,000 students it has enrolled overseas, including on its programmes with Chinese partners, compared to around £150 million from the almost 10,000 overseas students studying at its UK campus – of which around 3,000 are from China, making it the fourth largest recruiter of Chinese students.

But long term, few universities can afford to miss out on China’s huge domestic market: “There are many parents who will pay whatever it takes to get their kids into universities overseas, but there are a lot that can’t afford to as well.” As China’s education system continues to improve and internationalise, the demand for a foreign degree may not be as high as it once was.

China recognises that it does need to further improve its higher education system to make the country and its industries yet more competitive and to drive up the value chain. The brain drain that saw many of China’s brightest and most talented study abroad and then remain overseas for work, is what the government wants to put an end to.

More skilled graduates in better paid jobs not only keeps the talent in the country for higher skilled sectors but provides a further impetus to social mobility and stability.

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One of China’s other challenges is employability. The pipeline between university and industry has traditionally been disjointed. A culture that has not traditionally embraced work placements, internships and apprenticeships through education, combined with underdeveloped recruitment strategies and graduate programmes, has led to challenges for Chinese companies getting quality recruits.

As companies struggle to recruit talent, Coventry University has found a way to capitalise on this, creating a special programme for automotive manufacturer Geely – the car company that owns Volvo and Lotus.

“They are growing so quickly that it is a challenge for them to access the talent they need,” says Pilsbury. Ten years ago they established their own university as one measure to develop the talent pipeline. This has more recently been supplemented by measures to link with overseas universities and tap into the large numbers of students returning from overseas.

In response to this issue, Coventry University established the Geely Club, which runs recruitment fairs for Geely in Coventry but has developed a portfolio of other support measures to build a talent bridge, including offering continuous professional development, management training and tech training for Geely in China. “It offers scholarships, runs English classes for their staff, is developing a joint research programme, and post-graduate training centre with them, as well as delivering specific education programmes with them in China. The initiatives are continually expanding with now fully-funded Phd scholarships being provided and funded by the China Scholarship Council.

“We have multiple self-reinforcing activities with Geely. It is key for the sector to create an ecosystem that can be self-sustaining,” Pilsbury says.

The idea that British education institutions should simply recruit students from abroad is a very narrow one and according to Pilsbury, British universities should put aside their fears, be more proactive, and expand beyond their traditional model so that they – and British education in general – not only remain relevant but get ahead of the curve.

Many institutions are “nervous about spending money overseas and are risk averse, but universities like Nottingham that opened its Ningbo campus in 2004 are now seeing the rewards of their early first steps,” he says. Similarly, Liverpool partnered with  Xi’an Jiaotong University to establish a new university in Suzhou, has also seen many benefits – including having access to a stream of highly qualified Chinese students who want to finish their studies in the UK.”  When educational agent commissions can be as high as 30% of the fee, this is a major advantage of a jointly owned operation in China.

British universities should put aside their fears, be more proactive, and expand beyond their traditional model so that they  not only remain relevant but get ahead of the curve.


“Some people find China intimidating and don’t put the basic legwork in to find out the reality of the situation,” he says. Fears around repatriating funds for example, he says are largely baseless if the projects are managed correctly from the outset and proper legal and tax measures are put in place.

And this, he says, is where CBBC has been an excellent source of information, advice and support. CBBC’s role, according to Education Sector Lead Tom Clayburn, is to support universities with strategic advice, market entry plans and connections with partners – whether they be governmental or academic – and to help them find ways of engaging beyond the traditional model of just student recruitment.

Coventry University has not slowed up with respect to its China plans. Next up is a plan for a major collaboration in the southern Chinese island of Hainan, which is being developed as a high-tech, free trade zone, and huge investment is being made by both local and national governments.

“Our partner, the Communications University of China, has submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Education for us to jointly deliver undergraduate, postgraduate, and PhD programmes in newly built shared facilities,” says Pilsbury.

“The facilities are designed by our partner and the Hainan government to support our approach to higher education, which along with a commitment to high quality, innovative, internationally orientated programmes will also incorporate engagement with industry both through embedding in the programmes, and through a technology and innovation centre that will reach out to support SMEs as well as Alibaba and Geely who are present in the area. We will also be providing an English language centre available to students and others across the island of Hainan as they aim to become an international education hub,” he adds.

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Working with companies such as Geely and in areas such as Hainan, as well as partnering with colleges and universities in China, makes a genuine difference. Students who are aware of Coventry University because of its activity in China are more likely to choose to study with it and graduates of Coventry are more likely to invest in the city.

“Chinese businesses have made a number of investments in Coventry and have helped to sustain employment in difficult times. They own Coventry Press and the London Taxi Company, and many of our companies active in the advanced manufacturing supply chain both source from and supply to China,” Pilsbury explains. “On that basis alone, our younger population needs to understand China and how to work in and with it,” he says. “I would say people in any business now, but certainly in 20 years from now, will need to have some level of understanding of China.”

I would say people in any business now, but certainly in 20 years from now, will need to have some level of understanding of China.

Whilst universities such as Nottingham, Liverpool and Coventry have successfully expanded into China, Pilsbury believes it is essential that other British universities continue to engage with China to ensure that Britain doesn’t miss out on China’s continued demand for an internationalised student body.

“The UK Higher Education sector has to understand the geopolitics around China and of course we need to protect the things about the UK we really value, but that doesn’t mean we allow the relationships that have been built up since 1948 to be discarded.  “If we want to deliver global Britain, particularly the economic benefits, we need to recognise that it’s in the interests of the people of the UK, who need jobs, to have an adult relationship with China.

“After all, how can it be a bad thing for young Chinese people to get exposure to British people and the values for which we stand of tolerance, diversity and inclusion?” he adds.


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