China is still the largest source of international students for the UK, but with a challenging geopolitical situation and changing priorities for Chinese students, how can UK educational institutions future-proof their dealings with China?
The UK is home to some of the world’s leading and most widely respected educational institutions, and this soft power advantage has led the country to become a top study destination for students from all over the world.
With as many as 144,000 Chinese students currently pursuing higher education in the UK (32% of the total number of international students), they have become one of the country’s largest international student cohorts, making significant contributions to the higher education sector and regional economies. Speaking to Times Higher Education, Chris Skidmore MP, who is leading an International Education Commission to draw up goals and strategies for the sector, said that international students are “vital to the social and economic success of the UK and ensuring we remain an outwardly focused and engaging nation that remains relevant to the modern international world”.
The importance of Chinese students to the UK’s education sector is unlikely to change any time soon, but a number of new challenges – from the rising quality of Chinese universities to the tense geopolitical environment – mean that educational institutions need to consider how to make sure that their strategies are sustainable.
The current outlook for UK-China education partnerships
Thomas Clayburn, CBBC’s Education Sector Lead, defines sustainable UK-China education strategies as long-term partnerships that produce mutually beneficial outcomes. The goal of these partnerships should be to benefit students whether they are studying in the UK or China (notably in terms of employability), to produce research that is globally beneficial and to strengthen the overall environment of UK-China collaboration.
In recent years, UK universities have been looking for ways to diversify their transnational education (TNE) efforts in China. In the past, many universities pursued ‘2+2’ or ‘2+1’ style partnerships with Chinese universities, where the students study for a couple of years in China before moving to the UK to complete their degree. Today, many universities have moved to fully in-country programmes, a model that has been further entrenched by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the numbers show that the switch to this model has not reduced the number of Chinese students coming to the UK, and Clayburn points out that students who have studied in a TNE programme in-country still have a greater awareness of the UK education market and may be more likely to come to the UK to pursue a postgraduate degree.
The challenges facing UK-China education partnerships
Although the conditions for UK-China education partnerships are positive, there are some challenges that UK institutions should bear in mind.
In recent years, Chinese universities have been closing the gap with UK universities in terms of quality. In the latest Times Higher Education World University Ranking, released on 12 October 2022, China now has an unprecedented seven universities in the top 100, up from only two just six years ago. This could tempt more Chinese students to study in-country, especially with the prestige offered by a degree from the country’s top universities, such as Tsinghua (now ranked 16th in the THE ranking, the highest in Asia).
The challenges facing the transnational education sector in China, while real and potentially affecting the viability of the China market for some UK institutions, are far from insurmountable.
Moreover, Chinese students are becoming increasingly savvy and selective in their study abroad plans. It is no longer enough to have studied for any degree in the UK; students are looking for programmes with clear utility that translate into a career advantage. An increasing number of mature students are looking to international postgraduate education to upskill in fields in which they have several years of employment experience. Universities will need to bear this in mind when marketing existing programmes or designing new ones.
Finally, it is no surprise that the political sensitivity of the conversation around China in recent years has filtered into the education field. There has been increased scrutiny on UK-China research collaborations, especially in fields covered by the National Security and Investment (NSI) Act, such as AI, communications and satellite and space technologies. Over the past few years, five research collaborations – including centres at Imperial College and the University of Manchester – have closed due to their links with Chinese aerospace or defence companies.
However, Clayburn notes that a move away from STEM programmes towards the creative arts could be beneficial for many UK universities and that Chinese students will be drawn in by the strength of the UK’s creative industries in fields like fashion and design.
The challenges mentioned above may drive the diversification of the UK education sector’s relationship with China, which will ultimately be beneficial. This is especially true for institutions that sit further down the league tables or don’t have a famous name to fall back on. Many post-1992 universities – not traditionally the focus of Chinese student applications – have found success with TNE initiatives in China, and the appetite for TNE in China is likely to continue.